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Alle g ories of Readin g

Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, RiIke, and Proust

Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, RiIke, and Proust Paul de Man New Haven and London Yale University

Paul de Man

New Haven and London Yale University Press


Published with assistance from the Kingsley Trust As­

sociation Publication Fund established by the Scroll and

Key Society of Yale College.

Copyright © 1979 by Yale University. All rights reserved.

This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part,

in any form (beyond that copying permitted in Sections

107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by

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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

De Man, Paul.

Allegories of reading.

Includes index.

1. French literature-History and criticism.

2. Rousseau, Jean Jacques, 1712-1778--Style.

3 . German literature-History and criticism.

4. Figures of speech.


5. Allegory.


I. Title.


and criticism. 4. Figures of speech. PQ145.D45 5. Allegory. 7 9 - 64 0 7 5
ISBN Q-30n 02322 7
ISBN Q-30n 02322 7

Quarui on lit trop vite ou trop doucement on n'entend rien. Pascal





Part I


1. Semiology and Rhetoric


2. Tropes (Rilke)


3. Reading (Proust)


Genesis and Genealogy (Nietzsche)


5. Rhetoric of Tropes (Nietzsche)


6. Rhetoric of Persuasion (Nietzsche)



Part II



Metaphor (Second Discourse)



Self (Pygmalion)



Allegory Uulie)



Allegory of Reading (Profession de foi)



Promises (Social Contract)



Excuses (Confessions)







study and ended up as a theory of reading. I began to read Rousseau seriously in preparation for a historical reflection on Romanticism and found myself unable to progress beyond local difficulties of interpretation. In trying to cope with this, I had to shift from histori­ cal definition to the problematics of reading. This shift, which is typical of my generation, is of more interest in its results than in its causes. It could, in principle, lead to a rhetoric of reading reaching beyond the canonical principles of literary history which still serve, in this book, as the starting point of their own displacement. The prin­ ciples underlying the thematic diversity of Rousseau, the chronology of RiIke and Nietzsche, the rhetoric of Proust, are not left intact by the reading, but this critical result remains dependent on the initial position of these very principles. Whether a further step, which would leave this hermeneutic model behind, can be taken should not a priori or naively be taken for granted. In Part II, on Rousseau, I have attempted the elaboration and

the undoing of a system of tropological transformations in the form of a sustained argument. Part I establishes a similar pattern in a more fragmented way by moving between several authors rather than staying within a single corpus. The choice of Proust and ofRiIke as examples is partly due to chance, but since the ostensible pathos of their tone and depth of their statement make them particularly resis­ tant to a reading that is no longer entirely thematic, one could argue that if their work yields to such a rhetorical scheme, the same would necessarily be true for writers whose rhetorical strategies are less hidden behind the seductive powers of identification. What emerges is a process of reading in which rhetoric is a dis ruptive intertwining of trope and persuasion or-which is not qu ite the same thing-of cognitive and performative language. The i mplications of this conclusion are not easy to unfold, nor can they be stated in summary fashion, separated from the intricacies of specific readings. Nevertheless, opponents of such an approach have been more eager to attack what they assume to be its ideological motives


PREFACE rather than the technicalities of its procedure. This is particularly true wi t h


rather than the technicalities of its procedure. This is particularly true with regard to the tenn "deconstruction," which has rapidly become

a label as well as a target. Most of this book was written before

"deconstruction" became a bone of contention, and the term is used here in a technical rather than a polemical sense-which does not imply that it therefore becomes neutral or ideologically innocent. But I saw no reason to delete it. No other word states so economically the

impossibility to evaluate positively or negatively the inescapable evaluation it implies. Something is lost when the same process is described by a purely negative term, as when Nietzsche speaks of the

destruction (ZertrUmmerung) of conceptual constructs or Pascal of

the demolition (demolition) of a conviction that is itself already a destruction. I consciously came across "deconstruction" for the first

time in the writings of Jacques Derrida, which means that it is

associated with a power of inventive rigor to which I lay no claim but

which I certainly do not wish to erase. Deconstruction, as was easily

predictable, has been much misrepresented, dismissed as a harmless academic game or denounced as a terrorist weapon, and I have all the fewer illusions about the possibility of countering these aberra­

tions since such an expectation would go against the drift of my own readings.

Allegories qfReading was a long time in the writing, and the list

of institutions to which I am indebted is even longer. I began to write

on Rousseau and Nietzsche with the assistance of a Guggenheim

Fellowship in 1969 and wrote the main part of the book during a year's leave from Yale University in 1972-73, with the assistance of

a Yale Senior Faculty Fellowship supplemented by a grant from the

Merrit Foundation and a grant-in-aid from the American Council for

Learned Societies. Final verifications were completed in 1978 with the help of a travel grant from the Griswold Fund at Yale. I wish to thank the numerous colleagues whose support helped me in securing

this aid. As for my intellectual indebtedness, I feel indeed unable to enumerate what is beyond number and to disentangle, in so many cases, the part of influence from the part of friendship.

Parts of this book have appeared in print before. The section on Proust was originally a contribution to a Festschrift for Georges Poulet entitled Mouvements premiers (Paris:Jose Corti, 1972) and the

Rilke chapter was written as an introduction to the French edition of Rilke's poems (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972). Other chapters ap­

peared entirely or in part in Critical Inquiry, Diacritics, The Georgia


PREFACE Review, Glyph, Studies in Romanticism, and Yale French Studies. Per­ m i s s i

Review, Glyph, Studies in Romanticism, and Yale French Studies. Per­

mission to reprint is gratefully acknowledged. I have myself trans­ lated the two sections originally written in French.

I wish to thank Ellen Graham and Sheila Huddleston of the Yale University Press for particularly efficient and speedy copyediting, certain to cleanse the final text of all mistakes but my own. All translations of French and German quotations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

New Haven, April 1979

P. d. M.

Part I



Semiology and Rhetoric







spirit of the times is not blowing in the direction of formalist and intrinsic criticism. We may no longer be hearing too much about

relevance but we keep hearing a great deal about reference, about

the nonverbal "outside" to which language refers, by which it is conditioned and upon which it acts. The stress falls not so much on

the fictional status of literature-a property now perhaps somewhat

too easily taken for granted-but on the interplay between these fictions and categories that are said to partake of reality, such as the

self, man, society, "the artist, his culture and the human commu­

nity," as one critic puts it. Hence the emphasis on hybrid texts con­

sidered to be partly literary and partly referential, on popular fictions deliberately aimed towards social and psychological gratification; on

literary autobiography as a key to the understanding of the self, and so on. We speak as if, with the problems of literary form resolved once and forever, and with the techniques of structural analysis

refined to near-perfection, we could now move ''beyond formalism" towards the questions that really interest us and reap, at last, the

fruits of the ascetic concentration on techniques that prepared us for this decisive step. With the internal law and order of literature well

policed, we can now confidently devote ourselves to the foreign af­ fairs, the external politics of literature. Not only do we feel able to do so, but we owe it to ourselves to take this step: our moral conscience would not allow us to do otherwise. Behind the assurance that valid

interpretation is possible, behind the recent interest in writing and reading as potentially effective public speech acts, stands a highly

respectable moral imperative that strives to reconcile the internal, formal, private structures of literary language with their external, referential, and public effects. I want, for the moment, to consider briefly this tendency in itself, as an undeniable and recurrent historical fact, without regard


RHETORIC f o r i t s t r u t h o r falseness


for its truth or falseness or for its value as desirable or pernicious. It

is a fact that this sort of thing happens, again and again, in literary studies. On the one hand, literature cannot merely be received as a

definite unit of referential meaning that can be decoded without

leaving a residue. The code is unusually conspicuous, complex, and enigmatic; it attracts an inordinate amount of attention to itself, and

this attention has to acquire the rigor of a method. The structural moment of concentration on the code for its own sake cannot be avoided , and literature necessarily breeds its own formalism. Tech­

nical innovations in the methodical study of literature only occur when this kind of attention predominates. It can legitimately be said,

for example, that, from a technical point of view, very little has

happened in American criticism since the innovative works of New Criticism. There certainly have been numerous excellent books of

criticism since, but in none of them have the techniques of descrip­

tion and interpretation evolved beyond the techniques of close read­

ing established in the thirties and the forties. Formalism, it seems, is an all-absorbing and tyrannical muse; the hope that one can be at

the same time technically original and discursively eloquent is not

borne out by the history of literary criticism. On the other hand-and this is the real mystery-no literary formalism, no matter how accurate and enriching in its analytic

powers, is ever allowed to come into being without seeming reduc­ tive. When form is considered to be the external trappings of literary meaning or content, it seems superficial and expendable. The de­

velopment of intrinsic, formalist criticism in the twentieth century has changed this model: form is now a solipsistic category of self­

reflection, and the referential meaning is said to be extrinsic. The polarities of inside and outside have been reversed, but they are still

the same polarities that are at play: internal meaning has become outside reference, and the outer form has become the intrinsic struc­ ture. A new version of reductiveness at once follows this reversal:

formalism nowadays is mostly described in an imagery of impris­ onment and claustrophobia: the "prison house of language," "the impasse of formalist criticism," etc. Like the grandmother in Proust's novel ceaselessly driving the young Marcel out into the garden, away from the unhealthy inwardness of his closeted reading, critics cry out for the fresh air of referential meaning. Thus, with the structure of the code so opaque, but the meaning so anxious to blot out the

obstacle of form, no wonder that the reconciliation of form and



meaning would be so attractive. The attraction of reconciliation is the elective breeding-ground of false models and metaphors; it ac­ counts for the metaphorical model of literature as a kind of box that separates an inside from an outside, and the reader or critic as the person who opens the lid in order to release in the open what was secreted but inaccessible inside. It matters little whether we call the inside of the box the content or the form, the outside the meaning or the appearance. The recurrent debate opposing intrinsic to extrinsic criticism stands under the aegis of an inside/outside metaphor that is never being seriously questioned. Metaphors are much more tenacious than facts, and I certainly don't expect to dislodge this age-old model in one short try. I merely wish to speculate on a different set of terms, perhaps less simple in

their differential relationships than the strictly polar, binary opposi­ tion between inside and outside and therefore less likely to enter into the easy play of chiasmic reversals. I derive these terms (which are as old as the hills) pragmatically from the observation of developments and debates in recent critical methodology.

One of the most controversial among these developments coin­ cides with a new approach to poetics or, as it is called in Germany, poetology, as a branch of general semiotics. In France, a semiology of literature comes about as the outcome of the long-deferred but all the more explosive encounter of the nimble French literary mind with the category of form. Semiology, as opposed to semantics, is the science or study of signs as signifiers; it does not ask what words mean but how they mean. Unlike American New Criticism, which derived the internalization of form from the practice of highly self­ conscious modern writers, French semiology turned to linguistics for its model and adopted Saussure and Jakobson rather than Valery or Proust for its masters. By an awareness of the arbitrariness of the sign (Saussure) and of literature as an autotelic statement "focused on the way it is expressed" Uakobson) the entire question of meaning can be bracketed, thus freeing the critical discourse from the de­ bilitating burden of paraphrase. The demysti:tying power of semiol­ ogy, within the context of French historical and thematic criticism, has been considerable. It demonstrated that the perception of the literary dimensions of language is largely obscured if one submits uncritically to the authority of reference. It also revealed how tena­ ciously this authority continues to assert itself in a variety of dis­ guises, ranging from the crudest ideology to the most refined forms

continues to assert itself in a variety of dis­ guises, ranging from the crudest ideology to


of aesthetic and ethical judgment. It especially explodes the myth of semantic corres po ndence between sign and referent, the wishful hope of having it both ways, of being, to paraphrase Marx in the German Ideology, a formalist critic in the morning and a communal

moralist in the afternoon, of serving both the technique of form and the substance of meaning. The results, in the practice of French criticism, have been as fruitful as they are irreversible. Perhaps for

the first time since the late eighteenth century, French critics can

come at least somewhat closer to the kind of linguistic awareness

that never ceased to be operative in its poets and novelists and that forced all of them, including Sainte Beuve, to write their main works

"contre Sainte Beuve." The distance was never so considerable in England and the United States, which does not mean, however, that we may be able, in this country, to dispense altogether with some preventative semiological hygiene.

One of the most striking characteristics of literary semiology as it is practiced today, in France and elsewhere, is the use of grammat­

ical (especially syntactical) structures conjointly with rhetorical structures, without apparent awareness of a possible discrepancy between them. In their literary analyses, Barthes, Genette, Todorov, Greimas, and their disciples all simpli:f)r and regress from Jakobson

in letting grammar and rhetoric function in perfect continuity, and

in passing from grammatical to rhetorical structures without

difficulty or interruption. Indeed, as the study of grammatical struc­

tures is refined in contemporary theories of generative, transforma­ tional, and distributive grammar, the study of tropes and of figures

(which is how the term rhetoric is used here, and not in the derived sense of comment or of eloquence or persuasion) becomes a mere

extension of grammatical models, a particular subset of syntactical

relations. In the recent Dictionnaire encyclnpedique des sciences du

langage, Ducrot and Todorov write that rhetoric has always been

satisfied with a paradigmatic view over words (words substituting for each other), without questioning their syntagmatic relationship

(the contiguity of words to each other). There ought to be another perspective, complementary to the first, in which metaphor, for example, would not be defined as a substitution but as a particular type of combination. Research inspired by linguistics or, more nar­ rowly, by syntactical studies, has begun to reveal this possibility­

but it remains to be explored. Todorov, who calls one of his books a Grammar ofthe Decameron, rightly thinks of his own work and that



of his associates as first explorations in the elaboration of a system­ atic grammar of literary modes, genres, and also of literary figures. Perhaps the most perceptive work to come out of this school, Ge­

nette's studies of figural modes, can be shown to be assimilations of rhetorical transformations or combinations to syntactical, grammat­ ical patterns. Thus a recent study, now printed in Figures III and entitled Metaphor and Metonymy in Proust, shows the combined presence, in a wide and astute selection of passages, of paradigmatic,

metaphorical figures with syntagmatic, metonymic structures. The combination of both is treated descriptively and nondialectically

without considering the possibility of logical tensions. One can ask whether this reduction of figure to grammar is legitimate. The existence of grammatical structures, within and be­ yond the unit of the sentence, in literary texts is undeniable, and their description and classification are indispensable. The question re­

mains if and how figures of rhetoric can be included in such a taxonomy. This question is at the core of the debate going on, in a wide variety of apparently unrelated forms, in contemporary poetics. But the historical picture of contemporary criticism is too confused to make the mapping out of such a topography a useful exercise. Not only are these questions mixed in and mixed up within particular groups or local trends, but they are often co-present, without appar­ ent contradiction, within the work of a single author.

Neither is the theory of the question suitable for quick exposi­ tory treatment. To distinguish the epistemology of grammar from the epistemology of rhetoric is a redoubtable task. On an entirely naive level, we tend to conceive of grammatical systems as tending towards universality and as simply generative, i.e., as capable of deriving an infinity of versions from a single model (that may govern transformations as well as derivations) without the intervention of another model that would upset the first. We therefore think of the relationship between grammar and logic, the passage from gram­ mar to propositions, as being relatively unproblematic: no true prop­ ositions are conceivable in the absence of grammatical consistency or of controlled deviation from a system of consistency no matter how complex. Grammar and logic stand to each other in a dyadic rela­ tionship of unsubverted support. In a logic of acts rather than of statements, as in Austin's theory of speech acts, that has had such a strong influence on recent American work in literary semiology, it is also possible to move between speech acts and grammar without



difficulty. The pe rf onn ance of what is called illocutionary acts such

as ordering, q u estioning, denying, assuming, etc., within the lan­ guage is con gru ent w ith the grammatical structures of syntax in the

corres po nding im pe rative, interrogative, negative, optative sen­ tences. "The rules for illocutionary acts," writes Richard Ohman in a recent pa per, "determine whether performance of a given act is

well-executed, in just the same way as grammatical rules determine

whether the product of a locutionary act-a sentence-is well

But whereas the rules of grammar concern the rela­ tionships among sound, syntax, and meaning, the rules of illocu­

tionary acts concern relationships among people."l And since rhet­

oric is then conceived exclusively as persuasion, as actual action upon others (and not as an intralinguistic figure or trope), the continuity

between the illocutionary realm of grammar and the perlocutionary realm of rhetoric is self-evident. It becomes the basis for a new

rhetoric that, exactly as is the case for Todorov and Genette, would also be a new grammar.

Without engaging the substance of the question, it can be

pointed out, without having to go beyond recent and American examples, and without calling upon the strength of an age-old tradi­

tion, that the continuity here assumed between grammar and rhetoric is not borne out by theoretical and philosophical specula­

tion. Kenneth Burke mentions deflection (which he compares struc­ turally to Freudian displacement), defined as "any slight bias or even

unintended error," as the rhetorical basis of language, and deflection

is then conceived as a dialectical subversion of the consistent link between sign and meaning that operates within grammatical pat­ terns; hence Burke's well-known insistence on the distinction be­

tween grammar and rhetoric. Charles Sanders Peirce, who, with

Nietzsche and Saussure, laid the philosophical foundation for modern semiology, stressed the distinction between grammar and rhetoric in

his celebrated and so suggestively unfathomable definition of the sign. He insists, as is well known, on the necessary presence of a third element, called the interpretant, within any relationship that the sign

entertains with its object. The sign is to be interpreted if we are to understand the idea it is to convey, and this is so because the sign is not the thing but a meaning derived from the thing by a process here

1. "Speech,


(Autumn 1972): 50.

and the


in Between,"

New Literary





called representation that is not simply generative, Le., dependent on

a univocal origin. The interpretation of the sign is not, for Peirce, a

meaning but another sign; it is a reading, not a decodage, and this reading has, in its turn, to be interpreted into another sign, and so on ad infinitum. Peirce calls this process by means of which "one sign

gives birth to another" pure rhetoric, as distinguished from pure grammar, which postulates the possibility of unproblematic, dyadic meaning, and pure logic, which postulates the possibility of the universal truth of meanings. Only if the sign engendered meaning in

the same way that the object engenders the sign, that is, by repre­ sentation, would there be no need to distinguish between grammar

and rhetoric. These remarks should indicate at least the existence and the difficulty of the question, a difficulty which puts its concise theoreti­

cal exposition beyond my powers. I must retreat therefore into a pragmatic discourse and try to illustrate the tension between gram­

mar and rhetoric in a few specific textual examples. Let me begin by considering what is perhaps the most commonly known instance of

an apparent symbiosis between a grammatical and a rhetorical structure, the so-called rhetorical question, in which the figure is conveyed directly by means of a syntactical device. I take the first

example from the sub-literature of the mass media: asked by his wife whether he wants to have his bowling shoes laced over or laced under, Archie Bunker answers with a question: "What's the differ­

ence?" Being a reader of sublime simplicity, his wife replies by pa­ tiently explaining the difference between lacing over and lacing under, whatever this may be, but provokes only ire. "What's the

difference" did not ask for difference but means instead "I don't give

a damn what the difference is." The same grammatical pattern

engenders two meanings that are mutually exclusive: the literal

meaning asks for the concept (difference) whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning. As long as we are talking about bowling shoes, the consequences are relatively trivial; Archie Bunker, who is a great believer in the authority of origins (as long, of course, as they are the right origins) muddles along in a world where literal and figurative meanings get in each other's way, though not without discomforts. But suppose that it is a de-bunker rather than a " B unker," and a de-bunker of the arche (or origin), an archie De­ bunker such as Nietzsche or Jacques Derrida for instance, who asks the question "What is the Difference"-and we cannot even tell from

or Jacques Derrida for instance, who asks the question "What is the Difference"-and we cannot even



his grammar whether he "really" wants to k n ow "what" difference is or is just telling us that we shouldn't even try to find out. Confronted with the question of the difference be tween gra mmar and rhetoric,

gr ammar allows us to ask the question, but the sentence by means of

which we ask it may deny the very possibility of asking. For what is

the use of asking, I ask, when we cannot even authoritatively decide

whether a question asks or doesn't ask? The point is as follows. A perfectly clear syntactical paradigm (the question) engenders a sentence that has at least two meanings, of which the one asserts and the other denies its own illocutionary mode. It is not so that there are simply two meanings, one literal and

.the other figural, and that we have to decide which one of these

meanings is the right one in this particular situation. The confusion can only be cleared up by the intervention of an extra-textual inten­ tion, such as Archie Bunker putting his wife straight; but the very anger he displays is indicative of more than impatience; it reveals his despair when confronted with a structure of linguistic meaning that he cannot control and that holds the discouraging prospect of an infinity of similar future confusions, all of them potentially cata­ strophic in their consequences. Nor is this intervention really a part

of the mini-text constituted by the figure which holds our attention only as long as it remains suspended and unresolved. I follow the usage of common speech in calling this semiological enigma "rhetor­

ical." The grammatical model of the question becomes rhetorical not when we have, on the one hand, a literal meaning and on the other hand a figural meaning, but when it is impossible to decide by

grammatical or other linguistic devices which of the two meanings (that can be entirely incompatible) prevails. Rhetoric radically sus­

pends logic and opens up vertiginous possibilities of referential aber­

ration. And although it would perhaps be somewhat more remote from common usage, I would not hesitate to equate the rhetorical, figural potentiality of language with literature itself. I could point to

a great number of antecedents to this equation of literature with

figure; the most recent reference would be to Monroe Beardsley's

insistence in his contribution to the Essays to honor William Wim­ satt, that literary language is characterized by being "distinctly above the norm in ratio of implicit [or, I would say rhetorical] to explicit


2. "The Concept of Literature," in Literary Theory and Structure: Essays in

Honor ofWilliam K. Wimsatt, ed. Frank Brady,John Palmer, and Martin Price (New Haven, 1973), p. 37.



Let me pursue the matter of the rhetorical question through one

more example. Yeats's poem "Among School Children" ends with the famous line: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Al­

though there are some revealing inconsistencies within the commen­ taries, the,line is usually interpreted as stating, with the increased emphasis of a rhetorical device, the potential unity between form and experience, between creator and creation. It could be said that it

denies the discrepancy between the sign and the referent from which we started out. Many elements in the imagery and the dramatic development of the poem strengthen this traditional reading; with­ out having to look any further than the immediately preceding lines,

one finds powerful and consecrated images of the continuity from

part to whole that makes synecdoche into the most seductive of metaphors: the organic beauty of the tree, stated in the parallel syntax of a similar rhetorical question, or the convergence, in the

dance, of erotic desire with musical form:

o chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? o body swayed to music, 0 brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

A more extended reading, always assuming that the final line is to be read as a rhetorical question, reveals that the thematic and rhetorical grammar of the poem yields a consistent reading that extends from the first line to the last and that can account for all the details in the

text. It is equally possible, however, to read the last line literally rather than figuratively, as asking with some urgency the question

we asked earlier within the context of contemporary criticism: not that sign and referent are so exquisitely fitted to each other that all difference between them is at times blotted out but, rather, since the

two essentially different elements, sign and meaning, are so intri­ cately intertwined in the imagined "presence" that the poem ad­ dresses, how can we possibly make the distinctions that would shel­

ter us from the error of identitying what cannot be identified? The clumsiness of the paraphrase reveals that it is not necessarily the

literal reading which is simpler than the figurative one, as was the case in our first example; here, the figural reading, which assumes the question to be rhetorical, is perhaps naive, whereas the literal

reading leads to greater complication of theme and statement. For it turns out that the entire scheme set up by the first reading can be



undermined, or deconstructed, in the terms of the second, in which the final line is read literally as meaning that, since the dancer and the dance are not the same, it might be useful, perhaps even desper­ ately necessary-for the question can be given a ring of urgency, "Please tell me, how can I know the dancer from the dance"-to tell them apart. But this will replace the reading of each symbolic detail by a divergent interpretation. The oneness of trunk, leaf, and blos­ som, for example, that would have appealed to Goethe, would find itself replaced by the much less reassuring Tree of Life from the Mabinogion that appears in the poem "Vacillation," in which the fiery blossom and the earthly leaf are held together, as well as apart, by the crucified and castrated God Attis, of whose body it can hardly be said that it is "not bruised to pleasure soul." This hint should suffice to suggest that two entirely coherent but entirely incompati­ ble readings can be made to hinge on one line, whose grammatical structure is devoid of ambiguity, but whose rhetorical mode turns the mood as well as the mode of the entire poem upside down. Neither can we say, as was already the case in the first example, that the poem simply has two meanings that exist side by side. The two readings have to engage each other in direct confrontation, for the one reading is precisely the error denounced by the other and has to be undone by it. Nor can we in any way make a valid decision as to which of the readings can be given priority over the other; none can exist in the other's absence. There can be no dance without a dancer, no sign without a referent. On the other hand, the authority of the meaning engendered by the grammatical structure is fully obscured by the duplicity of a figure that cries out for the differentiation that it conceals. Yeats's poem is not explicitly "about" rhetorical questions but about images or metaphors, and about the possibility of convergence between experiences of consciousness such as memory or emotions-what the poem calls passion, piety, and affection-and entities accessible to the senses such as bodies, persons, or icons. We return to the inside/outside model from which we started out and which the poem puts into question by means of a syntactical device (the question) made to operate on a grammatical as well as on a rhetorical level. The couple grammar/rhetoric, certainly not a binary opposition since they in no way exclude each other, disrupts and confuses the neat antithesis of the inside/outside pattern. We can transfer this scheme to the act of reading and interpretation. By reading we get, as we say, inside a text that was first something alien



to us and which we now make our own by an act of understanding. But this understanding becomes at once the representation of an extra-textual meaning; in Austin's terms, the illocutionary speech act becomes a perlocutionary actual act-in Frege's terms, Bedeutung becomes Sinn. Our recurrent question is whether this transformation is semantically controlled along grammatical or along rhetorical lines. Does the metaphor of reading really unite outer meaning with

inner understanding, action with reflection, into one single totality? The assertion is powerfully and suggestively made in a passage from Proust that describes the experience of reading as such a union. It describes the young Marcel, near the beginning of Combray, hiding in the closed space of his room in order to read. The example differs from the earlier ones in that we are not dealing with a grammatical structure that also functions rhetorically but have instead the repre­ sentation, the dramatization, in terms of the experience of a subject, of a rhetorical structure-just as, in many other passages, Proust dramatizes tropes by means of landscapes or descriptions of objects. The figure here dramatized is that of metaphor, an inside/outside correspondence as represented by the act of reading. The reading scene is the culmination of a series of actions taking place in enclosed spaces and leading up to the "dark coolness" of Marcel's room.

I had stretched out on my bed, with a book, in my room which sheltered, tremblingly, its transparent and fragile coolness from

the afternoon sun, behind the almost closed blinds through which a glimmer of daylight had nevertheless managed to push its yellow wings, remaining motionless between the wood and the glass, in a corner, poised like a butterfly. It was hardly light

enough to read, and the sensation of the light's splendor was

given me only by the noise of Camus

crates; resounding in the sonorous atmosphere that is peculiar to hot weather, they seemed to spark off scarlet stars; and also by the flies executing their little concert, the chamber music of summer: evocative not in the manner of a human tune that, heard perchance during the summer, afterwards reminds you of it but connected to summer by a more necessary link: born from beautiful days, resurrecting only when they return, con­ taining some of their essence, it does not only awaken their image in our memory; it guarantees their return, their actual, persistent, unmediated presence.

The dark coolness of my room related to the full sunlight of

hammering dusty

actual, persistent, unmediated presence. The dark coolness of my room related to the full sunlight of



the street as the shadow relates to the ray of light, that is to say it was just as luminous and it gave my imagination the total spectacle of the summer, whereas my senses, if! had been on a

walk, could only have enjoyed it by fragments; it matched my repose which (thanks to the adventures told by my book and stirring my tranquility) supported, like the quiet of a motionless hand in the middle of a running brook the shock and the motion of a torrent of activity. [Swann ' s Way. Paris: PlE�iade, 1954, p.


a n n ' s Way. Paris: PlE�iade, 1954, p. 83.] For our present purpose, the
a n n ' s Way. Paris: PlE�iade, 1954, p. 83.] For our present purpose, the

For our present purpose, the most striking aspect of this passage

is the juxtaposition of figural and metafigural language. It contains seductive metaphors that bring into play a variety of irresistible objects: chamber music, butterflies, stars, books, running brooks,

etc., and it inscribes these objects within dazzling fire- and water­ works of figuration. But the passage also comments normatively on

the best way to achieve such effects; in this sense, it is metafigural: it writes figuratively about figures. It contrasts two ways of evoking the

natural experience of summer and unambiguously states its prefer­

ence for one of these ways over the other: the "necessary link" that unites the buzzing of the flies to the summer makes it a much more

effective symbol than the tune heard "perchance" during the sum­ mer. The preference is expressed by means of a distinction that corresponds to the difference between metaphor and metonymy,

necessity and chance being a legitimate way to distinguish between analogy and continguity. The inference of identity and totality that is constitutive of metaphor is lacking in the purely relational meto­ nymic contact: an element of truth is involved in taking Achilles

for a lion but none in taking Mr. Ford for a motor car. The passage is about the aesthetic superiority of metaphor over metonymy, but this

aesthetic claim is made by means of categories that are the ontologi­ cal ground of the metaphy ;ical system that allows for the aesthetic to

come into being as a ca'cegory. The metaphor for summer (in this

case, the synesthesia set off by the "chamber music" of the flies)

guarantees a presence which, far from being contingent, is said to be essential, permanently recurrent and unmediated by linguistic repre­

sentations or figurations. Finally, in the second part of the passage, the metaphor of presence not only appears as the ground of cogni­ tion but as the performance of an action, thus promising the recon­ ciliation of the most disruptive of contradictions. By then, the in-



vestment in the power of metaphor is such that it may seem sac­ rilegious to put it in question. Yet, it takes little perspicacity to show that the text does not practice what it preaches. A rhetorical reading of the passage reveals

that the figural praxis and the metafigural theory do not converge and that the assertion of the mastery of metaphor over metonymy

owes its persuasive power to the use of metonymic structures. I have carried out such an analysis in a somewhat more extended context (pp. 59-67, below); at this point, we are more concerned with the results than with the procedure. For the metaphysical categories of presence, essence, action, truth, and beauty do not remain unaf­ fected by such a reading. This would become clear from an inclu­

sive reading of Proust's novel or would become even more explicit in a language-conscious philosopher such as Nietzsche who, as a

philosopher, has to be concerned with the epistemological conse­ quences of the kind of rhetorical seductions exemplified by the Proust

passage. It can be shown that the systematic critique of the main categories of metaphysics undertaken by Nietzsche in his late work, the critique of the concepts of causality, of the subject, of identity, of referential and revealed truth, etc., occurs along the same pattern of deconstruction that was operative in Proust's text; and it can also be shown that this pattern exactly corresponds to Nietzsche's descrip­

tion, in texts that precede The Wi ll to Power by more than fifteen years, of the structure of the main rhetorical tropes. The key to this critique of metaphysics, which is itself a recurrent gesture through­ out the history of thought, is the rhetorical model of the trope or, if one prefers to call it that, literature. It turns out that in these innocent-looking didactic exercises we are in fact playing for very sizeable stakes. It is therefore all the more necessary to know what is linguisti­ cally involved in a rhetorically conscious reading of the type here undertaken on a brief fragment from a novel and extended by Nietzsche to the entire text of post-Hellenic thought. Our first exam­ ples dealing with the rhetorical questions were rhetorizations of grammar, figures generated by syntactical paradigms, whereas the Proust example could be better described as a grammatization of rhetoric. By passing from a paradigmatic structure based on sub­ stitution, such as metaphor, to a syntagmatic structure based on contingent association such as metonymy, the mechanical, repetitive aspect of grammatical forms is shown to be operative in a passage



that seemed at first sight to celebrate the self-willed and autonomous inventiveness of a subject . Figures are assumed to be inventions , the products of a highly particularized individual talent , whereas no one can claim credit for the programmed pattern of grammar. Yet , our reading of the Proust passage shows that precisely when the highest claims are being made for the unifYing power of metaphor, these

very images rely in fact on the decept ive use of semi-automatic grammatical patterns . The deconstruction of metaphor and of all rhetorical patterns such as mimesis , paranomasis, or personification that use resemblance as a way to disguise differences , takes us back to the impersonal precision of grammar and of a semiology derived

from grammatical patterns. Such a reading puts into question a whole series of concepts that underlie the value judgments of our

critical discourse: the metaphors of primacy, of genetic history, and, most notably, of the autonomous power to will of the self. There seems to be a difference , then , between what I called the rhetorization of grammar (as in the rhetorical question) and the grammatization of rhetoric, as in the readings of the type sketched out in the passage from Proust. The former end up in indetermina­

tion, in a suspended uncertainty that was unable to choose between two modes of reading , whereas the latter seems to reach a truth , albeit by the negative road of exposing an error, a false pretense . After the rhetorical reading of the Proust passage , we can no longer believe the assertion made in this passage about the intrinsic , metaphysical superiority of metap hor over metonymy. We seem to end up in a mood of negative assurance that is highly productive of

novel , for example ,

responds perfectly to an extended application of this pattern: not only can similar gestures be repeated throughout the novel, at all the crucial articulations or all passages where large aesthetic and

metaphysical claims are being made-the scenes of involuntary memory, the workshop of Elstir, the septette of Vinteuil , the con­ vergence of author and narrator at the end of the novel-but a vast thematic and semiotic network is revealed that structures the entire narra tive and that remained invi sible to a reade r caught in naIve metaphorical mystification. The whole of literature would respond in similar fashion, although the techniques and the patterns would have to vary considerably , of course, from author to author. But there is absolutely no reason why analyses of the kind here suggested for Proust would not be applicable, with proper modifica tions of tech-

critical discourse .

The further text

of Proust's



nique, to Milton or to Dante or to Holderlin. This will in fact be the task of literary criticism in the coming years. It would seem that we are saying that criticism is the decon­ struction of literature, the reduction to the rigors of grammar of rhetorical myst ificat ions . And if we hold up Niet zsche as the philosopher of such a critical deconstruction, then the literary critic would become the philosopher's ally in his struggle with the poets .

Criticism and literature would separate around the epistemological axis that distinguishes grammar from rhetoric . It is easy enough to see that this apparent glorification of the critic-philosopher in the name of truth is in fact a glorification of the poet as the primary

source of this truth; if truth is the recognition of the systematic character of a certain kind of error, then it would be fully dependent on the prior existence of this error . Philosophers of science like Bachelard or Wi ttgenstein are notoriously dependent on the aberra­

tions of the poets . We are back at our unanswered question: does the grammatization of rhetoric end up in negative certainty or does it,

like the rhetorization of grammar, remain suspended in the igno­ rance of its own truth or falsehood? Two concluding remarks should suffice to answer the question. First of all , it is not true that Proust's text can simply be reduced to the my stified assertion (t he superiority of metaphor over metonymy) that our reading deconstructs. The reading is not "our" reading ,

si nce it uses only the linguistic elements provided by the text it self; the distinction between author and reader is one of the false distinc­

tions that the reading makes evident . The deconstruction is not something we have added to the text but it constituted the text in the

first place . A literary text simultaneously asserts and de nies the au­ thority of its own rhetorical mode, and by reading the text as we did we were only trying to come closer to being as rigorous a reader as the author had to be in order to write the sentence in the first place.

Poetic writing is the most advanced and refined mode of deconstruc­ tion; it may di ffer from critical or discursive writing in the economy of its articulation, but not in kind.

But if we recognize the existence of such a moment as constitu­ tive of all literary language , we have surreptitiously reintroduced the categories that this deconstruction was supposed to eliminate and

that have merely been displaced. We have, for example , displaced the question of the self from the referent into the figure of the narrator, who then becomes the signijie of the passage. It becomes



again possible to ask such naive questions as what Proust's, or Mar­ cel's, motives may have been in thus manipulating language: was he fooling himself, or was he represented as fooling himself and fooling us into believing that fiction and action are as easy to unite, by reading, as the passage asserts? The pathos of the entire section, which would have been more noticeable if the quotation had been a little more extended, the constant vacillation of the narrator between guilt and well-being, invites such questions. They are absurd ques­ tions, of course, since the reconciliation of fact and fiction occurs itself as a mere assertion made in a text, and is thus productive of more text at the moment when it asserts its decision to escape from textual confinement. But even if we free ourselves of all false ques­ tions of intent and rightfully reduce the narrator to the status of a mere grammatical pronoun, without which the narrative could not come into being, this subject remains endowed with a function that is not grammatical but rhetorical, in that it gives voice, so to speak, to a grammatical syntagm. The term voice, even when used in a grammatical terminology as when we speak of the passive or inter­ rogative voice, is, of course, a metaphor inferring by analogy the intent of the subject from the structure of the predicate. In the case of the deconstructive discourse that we call literary, or rhetorical, or poetic, this creates a distinctive complication illustrated by the Proust passage. The reading revealed a first paradox: the passage valorizes metaphor as being the "right" literary figure, but then pro­ ceeds to constitute itself by means of the epistemologically incompat­ ible figure of metonymy. The critical discourse reveals the presence of this delusion and affirms it as the irreversible mode of its truth. It cannot pause there however. For if we then ask the obvious and simple next question, whether the rhetorical mode of the text in question is that of metaphor or metonymy, it is impossible to give an answer. Individual metaphors, such as the chiaroscuro effect or the butterfly, are shown to be subordinate figures in a general clause whose syntax is metonymic; from this point of view, it seems that the rhetoric is superseded by a grammar that deconstructs it. But this metonymic clause has as its subject a voice whose relationship to this clause is again metaphorical. The narrator who tells us about the impossibility of metaphor is himself, or itself, a metaphor, the metaphor of a grammatical syntagm whose meaning is the denial of metaphor stated, by antiphrasis, as its priority. And this subject­ metaphor is, in its turn, open to the kind of deconstruction to the



second degree, the rhetorical deconstruction of psycholinguistics, in which the more advanced investigations of literature are presently engaged, against considerable resistance. We end up therefore, in the case of the rhetorical grammatiza­ tion of semiology, just as in the grammatical rhetorization of il­ locutionary phrases, in the same state of suspended ignorance. Any question about the rhetorical mode of a literary text is always a rhetorical question which does not even know whether it is really questioning. The resulting pathos is an anxiety (or bliss, depending on one's momentary mood or individual temperament) of ignorance, not an anxiety of reference-as becomes thematically clear in Proust's novel when reading is dramatized, in the relationship be­ tween Marcel and Albertine, not as an emotive reaction to what language does, but as an emotive reaction to the impossibility of knowing what it might be up to. Literature as well as criticism-the difference between them being delusive-is condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most rigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and trans­ forms himself.














century to have reached a large and worldwide audience. Even in France, where Yeats, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Montale, Trakl, or Hof­ mannsthal are not widely known, Rilke is more read than most of the French poets of this century. More than fifty years after his death, a RiIke myth still lives well beyond the borders of the German­ speaking world. The reasons for this degree of public prominence are not obvious, for RiIke is not an easy or a popular poet. His work resists translation, his themes are intimate, and his discoW'se often oblique. Yet he has been received with a great deal of fervor, as if what he had to say was of direct concern even to readers remote from him in their language and in their destinies. Many have read him as if he addressed the most secluded parts of their selves, revealing depths they hardly suspected or allowing them to share in ordeals he helped them to understand and to overcome. Numerous biographies, reminiscences, and letters bear witness to this highly personal mode of reception. RiIke seems to be endowed with the healing power of those who open up access to the hidden layers of oW' consciousness or to a delicacy of emotion that reflects, to those capable of perceiving its shades, the reassuring image of their own solicitude. RiIke has himself often played on the ambiguity of a double-faced relationship toward others, leaving in abeyance which of the two, the poet or his reader, depended on the other to nourish his strength. "I wish to help and expect to be helped. Everyone's eternal mistake is to take me for a healer when, in fact, 1 am only attracting others, for my own profit, in the trap of a simulated assistance."· RiIke confides this self-insight in connection with a love affair, but it summarizes a mood encouraged by some aspects of the work. The initial seduction, the first intimacy


Letter from Rilke to the Princess of Thurn and Taxis, Februruy 24, 1915, in

BriejWechsel Rilke / Maria ron Thurn und Taxis (Ziirich, 1951), 1:399.





between RiIke and his readers almost inevitably occurs as an am­ biguous complicity in shared confrontation with "the near­

impossibility of living. , ,2 Some passages of Malte, large fragments of the correspondence, the general tonality of The Book of Hours, or a somewhat hasty reading of the Duino Elegies-all orient the reading in that direction. This tendency, which RiIke did nothing to discour­ age, contributed much to the formation and the success of the per­ sonal myth. It also left extensive traces in RiIke studies: it is some­ times difficult to discover the memory of the original texts under the abundant confessional discourse that it generates in the commen­ tators. RiIke's considerable audience is in part based on a relation­ ship of complicity, on shared weaknesses. It is not difficult, for a reader alerted to the ambivalences of the relationship between the self and its language, to demystifY this seduction. The intersubjective reading grounded in a common sen­ timent, in the "transparency of the heart," does not allow one to reach the area of Rilke's poetry that is not affected by this demys­ tification. In the case of this poet, readings that start out from the most self-directed passages in the letters, the novels, or the confes­ sional texts fail to uncover the poetic dimension of the work. The reason for this is not the bad faith which RiIke confesses in the letter from which I have just quoted; his poetry does not escape from sympathetic understanding because, under the guise of being solici­ tous and disinterested, he does not hesitate, at times, to use others rather coldly. The mechanics of this bad faith would be easy to describe and, if they were indeed at the center of his consciousness, they would be an effective way of access to his inner being. But they are in fact peripheral and Secondary. It has not been difficult to call into question the image of RiIke as a healer of soul and to prove that he was both less generous in practical and less stable in psychological matters than one might have suspected.3 RiIke's intimate self re­ mains in fact quite invisible and, far from being its driving force, it tends to vanish from the poetry altogether-which does not mean that this poetry is deprived of a certain mode of inwardness that remains to be defined. But the poet RiIke is less interested in his own person than one might gather from his tone and from his pathos.

than one might gather from his tone and from his pathos. 2. to ••• des Lebens


to ••• des Lebens Fast-Unm6glichk.eit," same letter, p. 399.

3. See, for example, Peter Demetz,Reni Rilkes PragerJahre (Diisseldorf, 1953),

and Erich Simenauer, R. M. mlke, Legende und Mythns (Bern, 1953).



The narcissism that is often ascribed to him no doubt exists, but on a very different level from that of a reader using him as a reflector for his own inner image. The personal seduction is certainly an impor­ tant component of the work, but it functions, so to speak, as its zone of maximal opacity. One could approach and interpret a sizeable part of his poetry by way of the negative road that would analyze this seduction. It may be preferable however to try to understand the work in a less antithetical way and to read the poetic texts them­ selves, rather than letters and confessional prose that may well turn out to be of contingent importance. On a somewhat more advanced level of understanding, the at­ tractiveness of RiIke stems from his themes. This is obvious, first of all, in the most superficial of ways: the poetry puts on display a brilliant variety of places, objects, and characters. As in Baudelaire, the categories of the beautiful and the ugly are subsumed, in RiIke, under the common rubric of the interesting. His poetic universe has something dazzling, as if it consisted of rare items in a collection or a museum, well set off against the background of a world that em­ phasizes their singularity. Repugnant and terrifYing themes have the same seductive power as the numberless objects of beauty and of light-fountains, toys, cathedrals, cities of Spain and Italy, roses, windows, orchards-that appear throughout the work. A form of poetic decorum, itself a mixture of caution and of genuine reserve, holds the violent images at a distance and prevents them from ac­ quiring a presence strong enough to undo the fiction or to dislocate the language. No matter which of the uncanny figures one singles out, be it the epileptic in Malte, the stylite of the New Poems, or the sinister acrobats of the Fifth Elegy, one will always encounter this picturesque and surprising element mixed with the horror and in­ terposing, between the reader and the theme, the screen of a lan­ guage that controls its own representational mastery. Even in what appears to be Rilke's most personal poem, the poem written a few days before his death and dealing with his physical pain, the pain remains "embellished" by the virtuosity of a perfectly prepared and executed conceit. It would be a mistake to dismiss this concern for attractive surfaces all too hastily as a form of aestheticism. The reference to Baudelaire should suffice to stress that more is involved. Aesthetic refinement is for RiIke, as for the author of the Fleurs du mal, an Apollonian strategy which allows him to state what would otherwise

for RiIke, as for the author of the Fleurs du mal, an Apollonian strategy which allows


TROPE S ( RILKE) by unsayable. On this level of experience, the aesthetics of beauty and

by unsayable. On this level of experience, the aesthetics of beauty and of ugliness can no longer be distinguished from each other. Nor is it possible to think of these seductive surfaces as merely superficial. For the thematic attraction also functions on a more generally inclusive level of understanding. Beyond the brightness of the set­ tings, Rilke's work dares to affirm and to promise, as few others do, a form of existential salvation that would take place in and by means of poetry. Few poets and thinkers of our century have dared to go so far in their affirmations, especially in affirmations that refuse to be anchored in established philosophical or theological certainties, or to h ave recourse to ethical imperatives that might directly lead to modes of action. It may seem surprising to characterize Rilke's work as positive and affirmative when it puts such stress on the main negative themes of modern consciousness. Rilke has an acute aware­ ness of the alienated and factitious character of human reality, and he goes far in his refusal to grant any experience the power to sus­ pend this alienation. Neither love nor the imagining power of the deepest nostalgias can overcome the essential barrenness of the self and of the world. Severed forever from the plenitudes of self­ presence, Rilke's figure of humanity is the frailest and most exposed creature imaginable. He calls man "the most ephemeral" (Ninth Elegy), "the most fleeting" (Fifth Elegy), the creature "that is inces­ santly departing" (Eighth Elegy), and that can never establish itself in an appeased presence to itself or to the world. The promise that the work contains is therefore anything but facile. But this makes it all the more convincing. On the thematic level, the existence of this promise is undeni­ able. The large affirmations of the Elegies, gnomic as they are, bear witness to this assertion, all the more so since they promise a salva­ tion that could take place here and now: "Hiersein ist herrlich" ("To be here is glorious" [Seventh Elegy]); "Hier ist des Siiglichen Zeit, hier seine Heimat" ("Here is the time for the Tellable, here is its home" [Ninth Elegy]); "Supernumerous existence / wells up in my heart" (idem). This emphatic here designates the poetic text itself and thus affirms that it escapes the fragmentation of number and of time. In the audacity of his assertion, Rilke assumes for poetry the furthest­ reaching promise conceivable. The evolution of his own poetry seems to fulfil this promise. After being announced in the ElegieS, it comes about in the appeased tonality of the later work, the Sonnets to Orpheus, and many of the poems written after 1912 and published



posthumously . It can be said of these poems that they perform the transi tion fr om elegy to hy mn, fr om complaint [Klage ] to praise'

[Rzihmen ].

One can understand therefore that Rilke not only claims the

right to state his own salvation but to impose it , as it were, on others. The imperative mode that often appears in his poetry ("You must

change your life"; "Demand change" ; "Sing the world to the Angel" is not only addressed to himself but asks for the acquiescence

of his reader. The exhorta tion is rooted in an authority confirmed by

the possib ility of its poetic existence. Far from putting this assurance

in jeopardy, the insistence of the negative themes certifies its veracity.

A too easily granted promise would be suspect and would not con­

vince, but a promise of salvation that could only be deserved by endless labor and sacrifice, in suffering, renunciation, and death, is a

different matter. One can begin to understand Rilke's poetry only if

one is willing to entertain this conviction . As for deciding whether it

is a legitim ate promi se, wh ether it is

question must remain open , not only as a matter of caution but because a rigorous reading must determine whether or not the work itself asks this question. The interpreters who read Rilke's work as a radical summons to transform our way of being in the world are therefore not misre­ presenting him ; such a summons is indeed a central theme of the poetry . Some respond to it without reservations . Others have

suggested that Rilke is still in the grip of ontological presuppositions which even the most extreme of his experiences cannot reach and that the reversal he demands, difficult as it may be, is still premature and illUSOry. Rilke's good faith is not being questioned, but his blind­ ness could be demonstrated by the critical analysis of his thought. Heidegger had oriented the reading of Rilke in th is direction , in an essay published in 1949 which Rilkean studies have not yet entirely assimilated .4 But it may be that the positivity of the thematic asser­ tion is not entirely unambiguous and that Rilke's language , almost in spite of its own assertions, puts it in question.

This does not , at first sight , seem to be the case. The advanced level of reflexive self-knowledge that informs Rilke's poetry nowhere conflicts with the mastery of his poetic invention. The meaning of the statement dovetails perfec tly with the mode of expression , and since


a truth or a sedu ction , th e



this meaning possesses considerable philosophical depth, poetry and thought here seem to be united in a perfect synthesis. For that reason, even the best interpretations of RiIke seem to have remained, by and large, on the level of paraphrase, a para­ phrase that is often subtle and careful but that does not question the convergence of the meaning with the linguistic devices used to con­

vey it. :> The statements are rich enough

the full range of meaning. The fact that these highly reflected state­ ments directly implicate language as a constitutive category of mean­ ing and thematize some of the lexicological and rhetorical aspects of poetical diction by no means troubles the assumed convergence be­ tween statement and Texis, between what is being said and the mode of its saying. RiIke's propositions about language are in fact carried out in his poetry, thus allowing one to move freely between poetry and poetics. The possibility of a conflict between both never seems to arise. Thus one of RiIke's commentators can write: "The poetic 'con­ tent' and the poetic 'form' are so perfectly united in RiIke's work that

it becomes impossible to object against the value of this poetry in the

name of a possible divergence between

a divergence is inconceivable because RiIke is claimed to state, in and

through his poetry, the very essence of poetry as the truth of this

essence. "The true essence of poetry

tures of its poetic 'content'." In the author from whom we borrow these formulations, this truth is equated with an existential decision that does not necessarily involve language. But the existential stance must eventually lead to decisions that function on the level of the language, even if these decisions appear to be of secondary impor­ tance. The same commentator is naturally led to consider formal aspects of the poetry, such as rhyme or metaphor, but he at once curbs their potential autonomy by fully identifYing them with the theme they convey: "The fundamental poetic practice, namely the elaboration of a metaphorical language, also derives from the experi­ ence of suffering. The metaphor is an act of identification: the actual suffering of the poet is made 'equal' with that of his symbolic

is identical with the struc­

'thought' and 'poetry' . "6 Such

in their content to saturate

5. The studies of Rilke that come closest to raising this question, without

however considering it directly, are the work of Beda Alleman, Zeit und Figur beim spiiten Rilke (Pfiillingen, 1961), and Maurice Blanchot's considerations on Rilke in L'espace litteraire (Paris, 1955).



." 7 The ontological alienation that Rilke so eloquently evokes would then not implicate language in any way. Language is the unmediated expression of an unhappy consciousness that it does not cause. This implies that language is entirely ancillary in its rela­ tion to a fundamental experience (the pain and the pathos of being) which it merely reflects, but that it is also entirely truthful, since it faithfully reproduces the truth of this pathos. The poet can thus abandon himself without fear to his language, even to its most for­ mal and outward features:

The logic of sounds [Lautlogik ] to which the poet yields when he allows himself to be governed by the power of his language can be meaningful only when it stands in the service of the truth which this language uses in order to conserve it. Poetry can be truth only when its trust in language-a trust that is not confined to acoustic affinities but that includes linguistic struc­ tures in general, including etymological relationship&-is in­ deed attuned to this justification of existence which language, in the region of its authentic origin, is always in the process of


With very few exceptions, similar presuppositions underlie the best available critical readings of Rilke.9 One may well ask whether the poetry indeed shares in the conception of language that is attrib­ uted to it. Such a question differs entirely from a concentration on the "form" of Rilke's poetry, in the narrowly aesthetic sense of the term; several careful studies have taken this approach but failed to reach major exegetic results.10 By suggesting that the properly poetic dimension of Rilke's work has been neglected in favor of his themes, we do not wish to return to the seduction of the forms. The question is rather whether Rilke's text turns back upon itself in a manner that

7. Morchen, p. 21; see also p. 15.

8. Morchen, p. 21.

9. The remark applies, with qualifications too complex to enumerate here, to

the writings on Rilke of Heidegger, Guardini, Bollnow, Mason, and jacob Steiner.

10. Such as, for instance, H. W. Belmore, Rilke's Craftmanship: An Anag,sis of

His Poetic Style (Oxford, 1954); Ulrich Fiilleborn, Das Strukturproblem tier spiiten Lyrik Rilkes (Heidelberg, 1960); Frank H. Wood, Rainer Maria Rilke: The Ring of

Forms (Minneapolis, 1958); Brigitte L. Bradley, Rainer Maria Rilkes neue Gedichte:

Ihr zyklisches GeJiige (Bern, 1968).



puts the authority of its own affirmations in doubt, especially when these affirmations refer to the modes of writing that it advocates. At a time when the philosophical interest ofRilke's thought has perhaps somewhat declined, the present and future signification of his poetry depends upon the answer to this question.

Rilke's work is often said to be divided by a clear break that corre­ sponds approximately to the passage from The Book ofHours to The Book of Images ; it is also from this moment on that a degree of mastery is achieved and that his manner reaches a certain stability. i 1 The break marks an important modification in the metaphorical and dramatic texture of the poetry. The more properly phonic elements are less affected by it. Before and after this date, Rilke persists in giving considerable importance to rhyme, assonance, and allitera­ tion; in this respect, one can hardly speak of a major change, except for a greater degree of refinement and control in the expressive use of acoustic effects of language. It is not easy to interpret this change. Commentators agree neither on the meaning nor on the evaluation of The Book ofHours, and they have difficulty locating it within the corpus of the complete work. Certain characteristics of the situation and of the tone (a prayer addressed to a transcendental entity) seem to prefigure the Duino Elegies; the volume also contains the first mention of symbolic objects and privileged words which will later acquire a central im­ portance, whereas many of the other themes of The Book ofHours

11. This bipartite division of the work does not correspond to a strict chronol­

ogy in the composition of the poems. The texts that make up Parts I and II of The

Book ofHours (The Book ofPilgrimage and The Book ofPoverty and Death) date from

September 1901 and from April 1903 respectively, whereas some of the texts in­

cluded in The Book of Images go back as far aSJuly 1899 and thus at times antedate

even The Book ofMonastic Life which was written in September 1899. Yet taking the

manner and the style of the subsequent work as a norm, The Book of Images

certainly appears more "advanced" than The Book of Hours. Rather than a genetic

development, we are dealing with two distinct poetic manners that can exist side by

side. According to the same stylistic criteria, The Ufo of Mary, which dates from

191 2, would belong to Rilke's youthful work. This proves that the distinction between

what is called "early" and "late" work is often not as simple as a genetic terminology

would lead one to believe. Still, the break to which we are here alluding offers a

convenient point of reference for the organization of the work. As long as one does

not confer upon it the power that belongs to origins, the division has a certain validity.



disappear from the later work. 12 The fervor with which the poems address a power that is given the name of "God" raises the question of their theocentric structure, a question that never stops haunting the exegesis of Rilke without , however , receiving a satisfactory an­ swer.13 Like iron filings under the power of a magnet, the verbal mass turns towards a single object that causes the eclosion of an abundant poetic discourse. The following poem, a typical instance of Rilke's poetry at this time, can both give us some notion of this discourse and serve as an introduction to the general problematics of the work. Since we have to allude to sound elements that cannot be translated, I quote in German:

Ich liebe dich, du sanftestes Gesetz, an dem wir reiften, da wir mit ihm rangen du grosses Heimweh , das wir nicht bezwangen, du Wald, aus dem wir nie hinausgegangen,


Lied, das wir mit jedem Schweigen sangen ,


dunkles Netz ,

darin sich fliichtend die Geftihle fangen.

Du hast dich so unendlich gross begonnen an jenem Tage , da du uns begannst,­ und wir sind so gereift in deinen Sonnen, so breit geworden and so tief gepflanzt, dass du in Menschen, Engeln und Madonnen dich ruhend jetzt vollenden kannst.

Lass deine Hand am Hang der Himmel ruhn und dulde stumm, was wir dir dunkel tun.



As in the figure of the ball, metaphor for God and addressed as "Ding der

Dinge" in a poem from The Book ofMoTUlStic Life (Rainer Maria mlke, Werke in drei

Biinden [Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1966], 1:21. All quotations from Rilke's poems refer to this edition). The passage can be read as an early version of some of

the New Poems.

13. Else Buddeberg, Rainer Maria mlke, eine innere Biographie (Stuttgart, 1954), observes, with reference to The Book of Hours, "that the evaluation of [its] merit is still being much discussed today" and quotes two critics to illustrate the wide divergences of opinion. One of them speaks of a "relinquishing of the self to


as the German language had not known since H6lderlin," whereas the

other asserts that it would be a "sentimental confusion

of serious religious feeling in this book" (Buddeberg, p. 531).

to find the slightest trace



By its setting, which follows the convention of the ode as a series of reiterated apostrophes that are as many metaphors, the poem indeed seems to be fully centered on the entity it attempts to name. But the periphrastic designation is so diverse that it becomes vague:

the entity is addressed as "law," "homesickness," "forest," "song," and "net," a sequence that cannot easily be reduced to a common denominator. Moreover, the entity is never itselfdesignated by one of the attributes that properly belong to it . The play of personal pro­ nouns is balanced between "I" (or "we") and ''you,'' thus establishing a nearly perfect symmetry from which the third person is practically excluded; after the "ihm" in the secOild line, the "ich/du" or "du/wir" pattern is close to perfect.14 The object of the apostrophe is only addressed in terms of an activity that it provokes in the addressing subject : if it is said to be a forest, it is only with reference to our behavior towards this forest; the net exists only as an obstacle to our flight; law is, per definition, that which governs our behavior and the song is at once identified as our song (or silence). The metaphors therefore do not connote objects, sensations , or qualities of objects (there is practically no third person in the grammar of the poem1S), but refer to an activity of the speaking subject. The dominating


The difficulty of translation, especially in the earlier Rilke poems, remains

B. Leishman (Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Wo rks

visible in the version produced by J. [London, 1960], p. 38);

I love you, gentlest law, through which we yet

were ripening while with it we contended, you great homesickness we have not transcended,

you forest out of which we never wended, you song that from our silence has ascended, you somber net

where feelings taking flight are apprehended.

You made yourself a so immense beginning the day when you began us too,---and we beneath your suns such ripeness have been winning have grown so broadly and deep-rootedly, that you, in angels, men, madonnas inning,

can now complete yourself quite tranquilly.

Let your right hand on heaven's slope repose and mutely bear what darkly we impose.

15. An exception occurs in line 7, where the third person [die Gefohle] precisely

refers to the feelings, to the interiority of the subject.



fully masters .

center, the "du" of the poem, is present in the poem only to delegate, so to speak., its Fotential activity to the speaking voice; this becomes the explicit theme of the poem in the two concluding lines. The purpose of the text is not to reunite the two separate entities but to evoke a specific activity that circulates between them.

by name . It states

instead, in its final sentence, that it must remain obscure and invisi­

The poem does not mention

this activi ty

and invisi­ The poem does not mention this activi ty ble: "dunkel tun." That it is

ble: "dunkel tun." That it is called a fulfillment [Vollendung] and that the will of the "du" is said to be accomplished by this act does not allow for its definition but repeats in fact the relationship of immanence between the two "persons" that is being staged in the tex t. A more implicit reading permits however some further speci­

fication. The beginning of the poem indicates that the activity in question is first perceived as a constraint and provokes the vain attempts to escape from its power. This is being openly stated in the first two lines and more suggestively evoked in the two following ones: the homesickness is oppressive, but we cannot evade it ; there

can be no escape from the forest that surrounds us; silence itself cannot prevent us from singing. The sequence culminates in the figure of the net : feelings that try to escape into forgetting or into indetermination are imprisoned and coerced, by this activity, to re­ main present to us. But the constraint changes to acquiescence. In the second stanza, the relationship between the "I" and the "you," instead of being paradoxical and dialectical as in the first section, blossoms out in the luminous image of the tree. The promise of the beginning fulfills itself as naturally and harmoniously as the ripening of fruit in the sunshine. The transformation designates the acquisition of a greater mastery in the activity that the poem symbolizes. This mas­ tery is thematically asserted in the reversal that has taken place between the beginning and the end of the poem : the subject that was at first compelled to obey can now act in full freedom and can conform its will to that of the "law." The central will of the poem has been transformed from constraint into a benevolent sun, with only


reminder of

repetition of the word


"dark" (dunkles

Netz, dunkel tun) as a

of "hand" in

original violence. Besides,

the mention





the impression that

we are


with an

ac tion involving sk ills that the initially reluctant student now

The proof of this mastery can only be hidden in the text. The



relationship between the two subjects or grammatical "persons" is so tight that it leaves no room for any other system of relationships. It is their interlacing that constitutes the text. There is therefore nothing in the poem that would entitle us to escape beyond its boundaries in search of evidence that would not be part of it: the freedom that is affirmed at the end is precisely a freedom within bondage that can prevail only because it is tolerated by the authority of the power which allows it to exist. It remains subjected to the single authority, to the single achievement, of the text. This achievement, however, is primarily phonic in kind. The last stanza, in which the mastery is asserted, is also the one in which effects of euphony reach their highest point of elaboration. The poem comes to rest in the lines

Lass deine Hand am Hang der Himmel ruhn und dulde stumm, was wir dir dunkel tun.

It can easily be verified that, in this last line of verse, there appears rigorously no syllable that does not fulfill an effect of euphony. The main rhymes and assonances (dulde stumm, wir dir, dunkel tun) are interconnected by syllables that are themselves assonant (und dulde) or alliterated (was wir) and thus enclose each sound-effect into another, as a larger box can enclose in its turn a smaller one. The mastery of the poem consists in its control over the phonic dimen­ sions of language. A reading of the other poems in The Book of Monastic Life confirms this conclusion. The "God" that the poems circumscribe by a multitude of metaphors and changing stances corresponds to the ease that the poet has achieved in his techniques of rhyme and of assonance. It is well known that these poems were written very quickly in a kind of euphoria which Rilke will remember when, more than twenty years later, he will write the &mnets to Orpheus; what the poems celebrate is primarily this euphoria. The metaphors connote in fact a formal potential of the signifier. The referent of the poem is an attribute of their language, in itself devoid of semantic depth; the meaning of the poems is the conquest of the technical skills which they illustrate by their acoustic success. It may seem preposterous to associate such a near-mechanical procedure with the name of God. Yet, the apparent blasphemy can just as well be considered as the hyperbole of an absolute phonocen­ trism. A poem of The Book ofMonastic Life (1 :20) asserts the possi-

RHETORIC bility of overcoming death itself by means of euphony, and it fulfills this prophecy


bility of overcoming death itself by means of euphony, and it fulfills this prophecy in its own texture, in the "dark interval" [im dunklen

lntervall ] that in its assonance both separates

words ''Tod'' (death) and ''Ton'' (sound). Once we succeed in hear­ ing the song hidden in language, it will conduct us by itself to the reconciliation of time and existence. This is indeed the extravagant claim made by these poems when they pretend to designate God by means of a medium which deprives itself of all resources except those of sound. Possibilities of representation and of expression are eliminated in an askesis which tolerates no other referent than the formal attributes of the vehicle. Since sound is the only property of language that is truly immanent to it and that bears no relation to anything that would be situated outside language itself, it will re­ main as the only available resource. The Cratylic illusion, which is held by some to constitute the essence of poetry and which subordi­ nates the semantic function of language to the phonic one , is doubtlessly at work in The Book ofMonastic Life. In a manner that is not yet entirely convincing, this early volume already partakes of the Orphic myth . In these texts, in which a measure of technical mastery alter­ nates with moments of clumsiness, the failure of the claim is as evident as is its presence. In order to give a coherent framework to the sequence of poems, RiIke is forced to substitute a subject that tells the story of its experience for the unmediated beauty of the poetic sound . The poems thus acquire a meaning that does not entirely coincide with their actual intent . They introduce an autonomous subject that moves in the forefront and reduces the euphony to the function of ornament. In the first version of The Book ofMonastic Life, this impression was still heightened by the brief narrative sec­ tions inserted between the poems, like a journal commenting upon the daily progress of the poet's work.16 The fact that RiIke was obliged to invent a fictional character, a monk surrounded by his ritualistic paraphernalia, well illustrates his inability, at that time, to dispense with the conventional props of poetic narration. And since the subject is confined to being an artisan of euphony, it has only a

and unites the two

an artisan of euphony, it has only a and unites the two title Die Gebete in

title Die

Gebete in the third volume of the Complete Works published in six volumes by Ernst Zinn C&imtliche Werke [Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1955-66], 3:305-73).

16. This first version of The Book ifMonastic Life appears under the



rather thin story to tell. In the two subsequent volumes of The Book

of Hours, especially in The Book ofPoverty and of Death , RiIke aban­

dons the claim to a self-referential diction and returns to the direct expression of his own subjectivity. The texts lose most of their formal rigor and acquire the obvious interest of a self-narrating sensibility. These poems are easy of access and often moving, but measured by RiIke's final and initial ambition they represent the least exalted moment of his poetic production. It will take the long labors ofMalte and of The New Poems to reconquer the impersonality that was proclaimed and lost in The Book of the Mo nastic Life.

While he was writing The Book ofHours, RiIke was also working at a very different kind of poem that would find a place in The Book of Images , itself a work of transition leading up to the masterful New Poems. The development that takes place in these texts is decisive for the entire mature work. It can be described by the reading of one of the poems characteristic of this period. The poem entitled "Am Rande der Nacht" ("At the borderline of the night") is a somewhat arbitrarily chosen but typical instance:

Am Rande der Nacht

Meine Stube und diese Weite, wach iiber nachtendem Land,­ ist Eines. Ich bin eine Saite, iiber rauschende breite Resonanzen gespannt.

Die Dinge sind Geigenleiber, von murrendem Dunkel voll; drin traumt das Weinen der Weiber, drin riihrt sich im Schlafe der Groll ganzer Geschlechter Ich solI silbem erzittern: dann wird Alles unter mir leben, und was in den Dingen irrt, wird nach dem Lichte streben, das von meinem tanzenden Tone, urn welchen der Himmel wellt,



durch schmale , schmachtende Spalten

in die alten Abgriinde ohne Ende fciJ.It

[1:156] 1 7

Instead of being caught in the "somber net" of a pseudo­ dialectic between pseudo-subjects, we are at once within a much more familiar poetic landscape. From the beginning, the poem an­ nounces itself as naming the unity, the complementarity of an in­ side/outside polarity: the inner seclusion of the "room" (which intro­ duces a subject by the posses sive of "my" room) and the infinitely

wide expanse of the night outside. They are decreed to be one by categorical assertion, as if this unity were the sudden revelation of a single moment, a specific accord between the self of the poet and the

world that surrounds him. But the poem does not remain within the

instantaneous stasis of this accord . The initial oneness undergoes a

transformation announced in lines 11 and 12: "Ich solI / silbern erzittern." This event triggers a transformation which is experienced

as a movement of expansion . It is no longer the static unity of inside

and outside that is being asserted, but the metamorphosis of an oppressive and constraining inwardness into a liberating outside

world. The positive valorization of the movement is marked by the

was in den

Dingen irrt , / wird nach dem Lichte streben." Upon the synchronic

ascending motion of darkness towards light: "

synchronic ascending motion of darkness towards light: " axis of an inside/outside polarity is juxtaposed a

axis of an inside/outside polarity is juxtaposed a dynamic axis which transforms the inside/outside opposition into a successive polarity of the type night/day.

For a reader accustomed to Romantic and post-Romantic poetry, this type of poem is most fa miliar, both by what it asserts

and by the antithetical couples that it sets into play. It tries to evoke


objects, by means of an expressive act , directed from inside to out-

accompl ish the syn thes is, the unity of a consciousness and of its

17. Translated as literally as the

text allows : "My room and this wide space I

I am a string I strung over wide,

watching over

the night of the land-I are one.

r oa

ring resonances .

laments of women

II Things

are hollow

violins I


of a

groaning dark;

I the ire of generations I dream and toss within



. I





t re

mble I and sing like silver: then I All will live under me, I and what errs in things I

light I that, from my dancing song, I under the cwve of the sky I

I falls I in the ancient depths I without end .



will strive for the

through languishing narrow clefts



side, which fulfills and seals this unity. The subject/object polarity,

which remained vague and ambivalent at the beginning, is clearly designated when the poem explicitly confronts the subject, no longer

with the indefinite immensity of the first line, but with the objects, the particular things that are contained in this wide space. The unity,

which was only asserted as a priori at the start, actually occurs before our eyes when the subject, claiming to be the string of a violin,

meets and adapts itself perfectly to objects which, in a metaphor that is truly Rilkean in its seductive audacity, are said to be the "body" of

this same violin, "Geigenleiber." The totality of the One thus consists of a perfect complementarity: without the sounding board of the

violin, the string is devoid of value, but it suffices to bring them together to make the "somber and deep unity" of the world vibrate and shine. Everything seems to confirm that this poem can be con­

sidered a later version of the "correspondence" between the inward­ ness of the subject and the outside world. The exteriority is further confirmed by the assimilation of the sky's immensity, in the first line,

to a thing; it is indeed the resonance of its space ("Ich bin eine Saite, / tiber rauschende breite Resonanzen gespannt") which is transformed

in the musical body of things ("Die Dinge sind Geigenleiber"). The poem is an example of the most classical of metaphors, conceived as

a transfer from an inside to an outside space (or vice versa) by means of an analogical representation. This transfer then reveals a totaliz­

ing oneness that was originally hidden but which is fully revealed as soon as it is named and maintained in the figural language. One could stop here, and confine oneself to the discovery of further

analogical parallels (such as the convergence of the spatial with the musical theme by way of an erotic connotation-since the body of the violin is that of a woman as well) and especially by stressing the

perfect coalescence of the metaphorical narration with the sound­ pattern of the poem . The moment of synthesis corresponds exactly to the modulation of the assonances from the i sound (ten times re­ peated in the first eight lines) to the e sound (ten times repeated in the four last ones) . One should also draw attention to the detailed precision in RiIke's selection of metaphorical analogons .

But if one allows oneself to be guided by the rigorous repre­ sentational logic of the metaphors, whose clarity of outline indeed distinguishes a poem like this one from those of The Book ofHours, then one should follow their guidance to the end. For RiIke's singular­ ity becomes manifest in a displacement that distorts the habitual



relationship between theme and figure. The pattern we have just

schematized does not appear quite in this shape in the text . The

definition , to the subject is lo­

cated instead within things . Instead of being opaque and full, things are hollow and contain, as in a box, the dark mass of sentiments and of history. The interiority of the speaking subject is not actively en­ gaged ; whatever pathos is mentioned refers to the suffering of others :

inwardness that should belong, per

the woes of women, the ire of historical generations . By a curious reversal , this subjectivity is invested from the start, before the figural

transfer has taken place , in o�ects and in things. This subjective ex­ perience is said to be dark to the extent that it is unable , by itself, to find expression; it exists in a condition of error and of blindness

("was in den Dingen iITt

until the subject, the "I" of the poem,


confers upon it the clarity of entities that are available to the senses

by giving it the attribute of voice . The usual structure has been reversed: the outside of things has become internalized and it is the subject that enables them access to a certain form of exteriority. The

"I" of the poem contributes nothing of its own experience, sensa­

tions , sufferings, or consciousness . The initial model of the scene is not , as one might think at first, that of an autonomous subject

confronting nature or objects, as is the case, for example, in Baudelaire's poem "l'Homme et la mer ." The assimilation of the

subject to space (as the string of a violin) does not really occur as the result of an analogical exchange, but by a radical appropriation

which in fact implies the loss , the disappearance of the subject as subject. It loses the individuality of a particular voice by becoming neither more nor less than the voice of things, as if the central point of

view had been displaced into outer things from the self. By the same token, these outer things lose their solidity and become as empty and

as vulnerable as we are ourselves . Yet, this loss of the subject's au­ tonomy and of the resilience of the natural world is treated as if it

were a positive event, as a passage from darkness to light. It would be mistaken to interpret this light as the clarity of a self-knowledge . In the logic of the figure , it is nothing of the sort : the light is the transformation of a condition of confusion and of non-awareness (dream, sleep, erring) in the sound-version of this same, unchanged condition. The figure is a metaphor of a becoming-sound , not of a becoming-conscious. The title, "At the borderline of the night," should not be read as the dawn of a new lucidity but rather as a persistent condition of confusion and dispersion from which there is



no escape. The end of the poem confirms this reading : the rising light

turns out to be a fall in "the ancient / depth without / end

the night. The totalization takes place by a return to the emptiness and the lack of identity that resides in the heart of things . The unity affirmed at the beginning of "Am Rande der Nacht" is a negative

unity which deprives the

ing a musical string, the self partakes forever in the erring of things.

Yet , it gives voice to this errancy.

This reversal of the figural order, itself the figure of chiasmus that crosses the attributes of inside and outside and leads to the annihilation of the conscious subject, bends the themes and the rhetoric from their apparently traditional mode towards a specif­ ically Rilkean one. It is difficult to comprehend this reversal on the level of the themes . The notion of objects as containers of a subjectiv­ ity which is not that of the self that considers them is incomprehen­

sible as long as one tries to understand it from the perspective of the subject. Instead of conceiving of the poem's rhetoric as the instru­ ment of the subject, of the object, or of the relationship between them, it is preferable to reverse the perspective and to conceive of these categories as standing in the service of the language that has produced them. The metaphor of the violin fits the dramatic action of the text so perfectly and the image seems so flawlessly right be­ cause its external structure (box, string, cleft that produces and lib­ erates the sound) triggers and orders the entire figural play that articulates the poem . The metaphorical entity is not selected because it corresponds analogically to the inner experience of a subject but


violin is like a metaphor because it transforms an interior content into an outward ; sonorous "thing." The openings in the box (so fittingly shaped like the algorithm of the integral calculus of totaliza­ tion) correspond precisely to the outside-directed turn that occurs in all metaphorical representations. The musical instrument does not represent the subjectivity of a consciousness but a potential inherent

in language; it is the metaphor of a metaphor. What appears to be the inwardness of things, the hollow inside of the box, is not a substantial analogy between the self and world of things but a for­ mal and structural analogy between these ' things and the figural resources of words . The coming into being of metaphor corresponds point by point to the apparent description of the o�ect . But it is not surprising that, in evoking the details of the metaphorical instrument

." of

self ofany illusion of self-insight . By becom­

its structure corresponds

to that of a linguistic figure : the



or vehicle (the perfect fit of the string to the box, the openings in the sounding-board, etc.), the metaphor comes into being before our eyes, since the object has been chosen exactly for this purpose. T h e correspondence does not confirm a hidden unity that exists in the nature of things and of entities ; it is rather like the seamless encase­

ment of the pieces in a puzzle. Perfect adjustment can take place only because the totality was established beforehand and in an en­ tirely formal manner . The poem "Am Rande der Nacht" still disguises this strategy by

simulating the birth of metaphor as the confirmation and the proof of the unity apodictically announced at the beginning of the text. But a careful reading can reveal the stratagem without having recourse to outside information. The poem, which first appeared to be a con­

frontation between man and nature, is in fact the simulacrum of a description in which the structure of the described object is that of a figural potential of language. Moreover, one should not forget that the metaphor of the metaphor is represented as an acoustical pro­ cess: the metaphorical object is , literally, a musical instrument . The perfect encasing of the figures makes language sing like a violin . The

priority of the phonic element that was stressed with regard to The Book of Mo nastic Life has not been abandoned . Not only is it audible in the parallel between the symbolic action and the euphony ofthe assonances, but it extends to the play offiguration . The Book oj Images is not less "phonocentric" than The Book oJHours-far from it, since now the imperatives of euphony govern not only the choice of words but the choice of figures as well .

The linguistic strategy of this still relatively early poem (which has several equivalences among the other texts that make up The Book oj

Images) will dominate the work until the end . The determining figure of Rilke's poetry is that of chiasmus, the crossing that reverses the attributes of words and of things . The poems are composed of entities, objects and subjects, who themselves behave like words,

which "play" at language according to the rules of rhetoric as one plays ball according to the rules of the game. "Am Rande der Nacht" is particularly revealing because it still makes use of the classical schema of a subject/object dialectic. The linguistic character of one of the poles involved in the inversion is therefore relatively easy to perceive, whereas it will often be hidden in the later work. At the same time, the almost programmatic tonality of the poem, the unity



first asserted and then "demonstrated" by the transformations of the

figures , will also

disappear. In the New Poems (Neue Gedichte) the

same poem would have been constructed differently. It might have

been called "The Violin" ; the two first lines would in all probability

have been replaced by a description that reverses the "real" schema of events : instead of being the result of their union, it might have been music itself that brought the string and the violin in contact with each other. A poem like the following, the entrance text to The Book ofImages ("Eingang ," 1:127) , clearly indicates the structure of the reversal . In the evocation of what could be called an abridged landscape, the reversal appears in the fact that the eyes of the person who is being addressed constitute a world of objects , instead of the objects directing their glance:

Mit deinen Augen hebst du ganz langsam einen schwarzen Baum und stellst ihn vor den Himmel: schlank, allein . Und hast die Welt gemacht . 18

The world which is thus created is then explicitly designated as a verbal world. Contact with this world is comparable to the discovery of meaning in an interpretation , and the interpretation engenders the text by appearing to describe the object:

Und hast die Welt

und wie ein Wort, das noch im Schweigen reift. Und wie dein Wille ihren Sinn begreift ,

lassen sie deine Augen zartlich los

gemacht . Und sie ist gross


But this poem is something of an exception . In the vast majority of the New Poems, only the structure of reversal is maintained , and its orientation towards the pole of language remains implicit . This remark gives access to the dominant pattern of the mature work, but it also implies the possibility of a misreading which will become an integral part of the poetry till well into its latest developments .

/ You slowly lift up a black tree / and stand it, thin ,

alone , before the sky . / You made the world." 19. "You made the world. And it is wide / and like a word that ripens still in quiet / And once you vouch to understand their sense / They'll gently let your eyes go free

18. "With your eyes




By sh owing the prevale nce , in the New Poems, of this reversal , one can also isolate the poles around which the rotation of the chiasma takes place. As is clear from the titles of the individual poems that make up the New Poems, they are often centered on

natural or man-made objects . When they describe personages or settings, they have often been so caught in a stylized perception that they have become like icons, emblems of a feeling or of a destiny as


that all these objects share a similar fundamental structure: they are conceived in such a way as to allow a reversal of their categorical properties, and this reversal enables the reader to conceive of proper­ ties that would normally be incompatible (such as inside/outside, before/after, death/life, fiction/reality, silence/sound) as complemen­ tary. They engender an entity, like the violin and the string of "Am Rande der Nacht ," which is also a closed totality. If we question why such or such an object inscribed in the New Poems has compellingly attracted RiIke's attention (or why he deliberately selected it) , the answer will always be that it forced itself upon him because its attributes allow for such a reversal and for such an (apparent) totali­ zation. A particularly clear and concrete instance of such a structural reversal would be , for example, the specular reflection. The poem "Quai du Rosaire" (1 :290) is a fine case in point . Taking advantage of a light effect at dusk, Rilke can, without seeming to be fantastic, decree that the upside-down world that is reflected in the still water of the canals is more substantial and more real than the ordinary world of the day:

circumscribed as are the properties of things . It soon appears

das abendklare Wasser .


diese Dinge nie. 20



die eingehangte Welt von Spiegelbildern

so wirklich wird wie

The description of the details of this upside-down city, although it maintains the realism of the local color (Estaminets , 1. 16) one expects in a poem that is also like a postcard , thus acquires a some­ what uncanny and as it were surreal character. The reversal of the

20. "the clear evening water .


. / in which



. / the suspended world of

mirrored images / becomes more real than things ever were."



attribute of reality (the text stresses indeed reality, "Wirklich[keit]") was prepared from the first part on. In an apparent personification, which is in fact a prosopopoeia based on the language-embedded idiom according to which, in German as in English , streets are said to "go" from here to there, the auxiliary condition for an action (the streets, auxiliary device for the action of going) becomes the agent of this same action. The slight note of absurdity sounded in the first evocation of the walking streets ("Die Gassen haben einen sachten

und die an Platze kommen, warten lang / auf eine

andre, die mit einem Schritt / iiber das abendklare Wasser tritt .")21 prefigures the reversal of the reflection which might other­ wise seem too brusque or artificial . The surreality is not limited to the reflected world. We saw that the reversal acquires poetic value only when it leads to a new totali­ zation; this is why, after having traversed the surface of the looking glass and entered the reflected world, the poem has to return, in the last stanza, to the real world "above." By the same token, the tem­ poral nature of an event that , up till then , was described in spatial and ocular terms, becomes manifest. The blurring of the outlines, which at first seems to be due entirely to the play of light and shadow, takes on a temporal dimension when one remembers that the poem is about "Brugge," "Bruges la morte" as it is called by the poet Georges Rodenbach, a city that used to be prestigious but has become , by the loss of its natural harbor and medieval glory, an emblem for the transience of human achievement, a figure of muta­

bility. The question that introduced the temporal dimension, "Ver­

ging nicht diese Stadt?" ("Did not this city perish?") , a question reiter­ ated in line 17: "Und oben blieb?" ("And what remained above?" ), is

answered at the end : the real world "above"

has not been entirely

dissolved in the reflection of things past , since the final perception (the bells of the carillon) reach us from above . But this reality is then no longer solidly anchored on the ground . The reflection has emptied it out; its illusory stability has been replaced by the surreal irreality of

the mirror image. The descent in the underworld of the mirror uplifts the real and suspends it in the sky, like a constellation. The final totalization takes place within this constellation , which could

Gang /

and when they reach the squares

they wait / forever for another which , in one sole step / crosses the clear evening

21 . "The streets go with a gentle walk



not have come about without the passage through the fiction of the specular world . This new totality is itself temporal in kind: the sound of the carillon, the real totality that remains, also has for its function to measure the passage of time. By thinking of Brugge no longer as a stable reality but as the figure of temporal loss and erosion, the reality lost in the everyday world of unreflected surfaces is recovered :

the live Brugge is much less "real" than "Bruges la morte."22 Finally, the temporal constellation that functions as a resolution manifests itself, in the last analysis, as sound . Perceived in the truth of its mutability, time becomes an audible reality. This experience of time is highly paradoxical. It acquiesces to all that ordinarily appears as the opposite of permanence and of dura­ tion . The affirmation is retained in the seductive but funereal image of a temporal annihilation which is enjoyed as if it were a sensuous pleasure, "der Sussen Traube / des Glockenspiels" ("The sweetened cluster of grapes / of the carillon") , which actually is the death knell that reduced the city to a ghostly memory. Similarly, the sound of this new temporality will have all the attributes ofits opposite: at the end of the poem, a new chiasmus crosses the attributes of silence and of sound and . designates the sound of the carillon by the proper­ ties of silence:

Und oben blieb? -Die Stille nur, ich glaube, und kostet langsam und von nichts gedrangt Beere urn Beere aus der sussen Traube des Glockenspiels, das in den Himmeln hangt .23


Rilke himself says just

about exactly

the opposite in

a prose text






Biiruien, 3:498) ,

which begins with considerations on

the city

of Brugge. The prose text hardly invalidates our reading. All it proves



this text ,

which is a ki nd of travel journal, does not say the same

thing on a given entity

( t he

city of Brugge, in


case) as

th e poetry. The

passage is


good example

of the





too literal

use made

of the

"sources" derived

from the


works or from

the letters.

The specific

moment that

Rilke wished

to retain

for the

poem also appears in

the prose passage: "It


constantly vanishing, like a fresco eaten

by the


of dampness




" (3:498)

. Fumes


contains the explicit refer­

ence to


la Mo

rte by


Flemish symbolist poet


wrote in





23. "And what remained above?--Only silence, I believe, / which tastes slowly

unhurriedly / grape by grape

the sweetened cluster

/ of the carillon, suspended


in the skies."



The evocation of Brugge as the image of mutability is in itself banal; if it were to be reduced to this theme alone, the poem would be of minor interest. The recovery of duration by means of the subject's acquiescence to the temporal erosion that threatens it is more challenging: it combines the audacity of a paradox with a promise of beauty or even , in the image of the grapes , of sensuous gratification on the far side of the grave. Yet the true interest of the poem does not stem from these thematic statements, but rather from the intricacy and the wealth of movements triggered by the original chiasmus. The crossing of the categories of reality and of specular reflection articulates a sequence of similarly structured re­ versals: reversal of agent and instrument , of ascent and descent , of inside and outside , of loss and recuperation , death and life, time and sound, sound and silence. A great deal of rhetorical agitation is contained in a brief poetic text which also has the innocent appear­ ance of a picturesque description, of a picture postcard. Versions of this same pattern reappear in each of the New Poems. Each of these poems is closed off in its own self-sufficiency as the description of a particular object or scene, and each poem states in its own terms the enigma of the chiasmus that constitutes it. "L'ange du meridien," for example (to refer only to the best known of the New Poems, 1 :253) , culminates in the totalization of a temporal­ ity which can, in opposition to the lacunary time of everyday experi­ ence , be said to be full; this total time is evoked by means of the figure of a sundial which, during the night, registers time that would be as entirely imaginary as might be invisible light . The temporal totalization is brought about by the chiasmic reversal of the categories night/day and light/dark. "Oer Ball" (1 :395) is a strictly descriptive version of a totalization that includes the contradictory

motions of rising and fa lling [Flug und Fall ].24 It is brought about by means of an object which , like the violin in "Am Rande der Nacht," has become the depository ofan inwardness which is not simply that

of the subject .25 The moment of reversal is

graphically represented

24. The totalization of rise and fall is one of the fundamental tropes of Rilke's

poetry. It is thematically asserted at the end of the Tenth Elegy but recurs persis­ tently throughout the work. "Das Kapital" (1:257) would be a characteristic instance among others . The theme is present in The Book ofMonastic Lifo, although it would be premature to speak of totalization in this case.

25. It goes without saying that this movement, which occurs in the lines "

was in den Gegenstanden / nicht bleiben kann

/ das gIitt in dich



R H ETORI C when the subject becomes , in its turn, a thing whose


when the subject becomes , in its turn, a thing whose motion is determined by another thing at the precise instant when the ball reaches the apogee of its own trajectory:

[der Ball]

und einhalt und den Spielenden von oben

auf einmal eine neue Stelle zeigt , sie ordnend wie zu einer Tanzfigur,


und sich neigt

The reversal makes it possible to consider the falling motion as if it were an event that partakes, to some degree , in the joyful upsurge of the ball's first traj ectory. And this rising motion, by prospective an­ ticipation, already contains within itself the future decline to which

the subje ct can acquiesce. A kinetic totality is evoked by a reversal of the subject/object , free/determined polarities within a purely spatial and representational schema.

In "Archaischer

Torso Apollos" (1 :313) the reversal is ocular.

The observer is, in its turn, being observed by the fragmentary statue which has been transformed into a single , large eye : "denn da ist keine Stelle , / die dich nicht sieht ." The reversal is possible only because the sculpture is broken and fragmentary; if the statue had

actually represented the eye of Apollo , the chiasmus could not have

come about . The absent

into being, and it makes the eyeless sculpture into an Argus eye capable of engendering, by itself, all the dimensions of space. We always re-encounter versions of the same negative moment : the hol­ low of the violin , the irreality of the mirrored image , the darkness of a sundial at night, the falling ball, the missing eye. The absences create

the space and the play needed for the reversals and finally lead to a totalization which they seemed , at first , to make impossible . The broken statue becomes more complete than the intact one , decadent

eye allows for an imaginary vision to come

could not remain in objects /

object of the apostrophe) , is a great deal more complex in the poem than in the

schematic summary we give here for reasons of economy. A detailed reading of "Der

Ball" would show that we are indeed dealing with such a reversal of the subjective "content ."

bows down / lingers and suddenly, from above, / points

the player to a new place / ordering place and player as in a figured dance

that glided into you") (that is to say, in the ball,


"[the ball]




Brugge richer than the prosperous reality of the past, the falling ball "happier" than the rising one, the nocturnal dial a more complete timepiece than the sundial at midday, etc. The unifying principle of the New Poems resides in the homol­ ogy of their rhetorical structure. Even when they evoke entities which, unlike a ball, a fountain, a cat , or a gazelle, are no longer relatively ordinary but transcendental or even divine, the structure remains the same . As a matter of fact the predicates of ordinariness and transcendence are themselves one of the most striking reversals. Rilke desGribes the rose window of the Chartres cathedral both as the

reabsorption of all existence into the oneness of God and as the eye of

a cat ("Die Fensterrose," 1:257) . The shock of this juxtaposition does

not actually deepen our knowledge and understanding of reality and of God , but it seduces the mind by the surprise of its precision. It captures and fascinates attention by the same skill that allows for the

virtuosity of its play. It would therefore be a mistake to follow till

end those commentators who read the New Poems as a messianic text ,27 seeing them as a hierarchized network of symbolic relation­

ships that ascend towards the parousia ofan omnipresent being. The numerous successful poems that appear in the volume are primarily

successes of language and of rhetoric. This is hardly surprising, since

it has been clear from the start that the Rilkean totalizations are the

outcome of poetic skills directed towards the rhetorical potentialities of the signifier. This reversal of the traditional priority, which located the depth of meaning in a referent conceived as an o�ect or a consciousness of which the language is a more or less faithful reflection, asserts itself in Rilke's poetry by disguising itselfat once into its opposite. Very few of the New Poems openly refer to language (as was the case with the "Eingang" poem ofThe Book ofImages) , but the priority of1exis over logos is always apparent in their structure. Rilke's vocabulary retains this shift in the emphasis and in the authority of the figural struc-


27. Such as, for example, the most attentive interpreter of New Poems, Hans

Berendt, in Rainer Maria Rilkes Neue Gedichte: Versuch einer Deutung ( Bonn, 1957) .

The recent study by Brigi tte Bradley, Rainer Maria Rilkes Neue Gedichte: Ihr zyk­ lisches (Bern, 1968) , is not messianic but does not attempt an interpretation of the book as a whole.



tures when he uses , with considerable precision, the term "figure" (Figur) to distinguish his rhetorical strategy from that of classical

metaphors.28 By suggesting the potential identification of tenor and vehicle, the traditional metaphor stresses the possible recuperation of a stable meaning or set of meanings. It allows one to see language as a means towards a recovered presence that transcends language itself. But what RiIke calls figure is , on the thematic level , anything

but a recuperation. The allegory of figuration in a text such as "Or­ pheus. Eurydice. Hennes" (1 :298) contributes to the understanding

of this distinction. The poem explicitly describes the poetic vocation by means of a thematized version of chiasmic reversal , source of Rilke's affinity with the myth of Orpheus. The theme appears twice in the text and

allows one to distinguish the "right" reversal at the end from the

"wrong" reversal described in section III:

Und seine Sinne waren wie entzweit :

indes der Blick ihm wie ein Hund vorauslief,

umkehrte , kam und

und wartend an der nachsten Wendung stand,­

blieb sein Geh6r wie ein Geruch zuruck.29

immer wieder weit

This mode of reversal , to which Orpheus will finally succumb , indi­ cates the impatience and the desire for a possession within presence . The absence of being-the death of Eurydice-is the origin of a desire which expresses itself in the elegiac tonality of the complaint . In a passage that prefigures the central theme of the Tenth Duino Elegy, the complaint is defined as a language capable ofcreating and filling an entire poetic universe:

Die So-Geliebte , dass aus einer Leier mehr Klage kam als je aus Klagefrauen ;

28. On the concept of figure in Rilke, the study by Beda Alleman, Zeit unci

Figur beim spiiten mike, remains indispensable . (See note 5 above.)

. 29. "And his senses were as doubled: / because his sight, like a dog, ran ahead of him, / turned around , came back to him and stood / waiting for him at the next roadbend ,- / his hearing tarried as if it were an odor ."



dass eine Welt aus Klage ward, in der alles noch einmal da war:


Welt aus Klage ward, in der alles noch einmal da war: 30 [1 :300] However, since

[1 :300]

However, since it stems from a desire for presence, the com­ plaint is almost inevitably transformed into the impatience of a desire. It tends to consider the fictional world it engenders as an absent reality, and it tries to repossess what it lacks as if it were an exterior entity. The confusion can only lead to the loss of language which, in the symbolism of the poem, corresponds to Orpheus's increased inability to perceive sounds to the point of forgetting the existence of his lyre. To the extent that metaphor can be thought of as a language ofdesire and as a means to recover what is absent , it is essentially anti-poetic. The genuine reversal takes place at the end of the poem, when Hermes turns away from the ascending movement that leads Orpheus back to the world of the living and instead fol­ lows Ewydice into a world ofprivation and nonbeing. On the level of poetic language , this renunciation corresponds to the loss of a pri­ macy of meaning located within the referent and it allows for the new rhetoric of Rilke's "figure." RiIke also calls this loss of referen­ tiality by the ambivalent term of "inwardness" (innen entstehen, Weltinnen raum, etc.) , which then does not designate the self­ presence of a consciousness but the inevitable absence of a reliable referent. It designates the impossibility for the language of poetry to appropriate anything, be it as consciousness , as object , or as a syn­ thesis of both. From the perspective of the language of figuration , this loss of substance appears as a liberation. It triggers the play of rhetorical reversals and allows them the freedom of their play without being hampered by the referential constraints of meaning: RiIke can assert , for instance, that the reflection is more real than reality, or that the sundial records the hours of the night, because his statement now exists only in and by itself. The same freedom also allows him to prefigure a new totality in which the figures will perfectly comple­ ment each other, since the totality does not have to take into account

30. "Beloved, so-beloved, that from one lyre / Came more woe than ever came

from wa iling women / and thus arose a world of woe in which / all things once more

were present




any empirical or transcendental veracity that might conflict with its principle of constitution. And it also allows for a perfect articulation of the semantic with the rhetorical and phonic function of language, thus preserving the initial sound-centered manner as a principle of poetic composition . From New Poems on , RiIke's poetry will live off the euphoria of this recovered freedom. A constant refinement, which goes far enough to recover a semblance of simplicity, will reduce the diversity of figuration that appears in New Poems to a small number of elective figures that are particularly productive in their internal reversals as well as capable of combining with each other in at times dazzling constellations. But the poetry will be able to achieve this mastery only at the cost of a subterfuge to which it finds itself necessarily condemned. For this "liberating theory of the Signifier"31 also implies a com­ plete drying up of thematic possibilities . In order to be a pure poetry of what RiIke calls "figures," it should start on the far side of the renunciation which opens up its access to this new freedom. But could any poetry, including RiIke's, lay claim to the purity of such a semantic askesis? Some of RiIke's allegorizing poems, such as "Or­

pheus . Eurydice. Hermes" or the Tenth Duino

cally thematize the renunciation in a narrative mode, by telling the story of this renunciation. In a more lyrical vein , RiIke attempted poems that tend towards the impersonality and the detachment that should characterize a poetics of pure "figure." In those poems, an emblematic object is revealed to be a figure without the need of any discourse, by the very structure of its constitution. Such poems appear in his work fr om New Poems on and will recur till the end , including some of the poems written in the French language. These poems are by necessi ty brief and enigmatic, often consisting of one single sen­ tence. One might well consider them to be RiIke's most advanced poetic achievement . It is through them that he is related to poets such as Trakl or Celano The figure stripped of any seduction besides that of its rhetorical elasticity can form, together with other figures, constellations of figures that are inaccessible to meaning and to the senses , located far beyond any concern for life or for death in the hollow space of an unreal sky. But next to these short and necessarily enigmatic tests, RiIke has

Elegy, programmati­

31. The expression comes from Roland Barthes and appears on the cover of S/Z (Paris, 1970) .



also produced works of a wider, at times monumental , scope that are more accessible to understanding. The example of predecessors such as Holderlin or Baudelaire may well have guided him in this

direction . The trend is apparent in some

and it culminates in the Duirw Elegies, the work that, more than any other, has determined the reading of RiIke as a messianic poet. For rather than being themselves poetic figures , the Elegies state a

genuine existential philosophy of figuration , presented as if it were a coherent principle of inner behavior, with rules and precepts that could be set up as exemplary . In principle , the imperative tone of the Elegies is totally incompatible with the very notion of pure figure ,

which implies the complete renunciation of any normative pathos or ethical coercion. But there representational and subjective elements openly playa determining part . Although they advocate a conception of language that excludes all subjective or intersubjective dimensions , the Duino Elegies constantly appeal to the reader's emotion and par­ ticipation. This paradox is not due to bad faith or to deliberate deception on the part of RiIke; it is inherent in the ambivalence of poetic language . The primacy of the signifier, on which RiIke's phonocentric

poetics of chiasmus is predicated , is not just one property of language among others that would have remained unnoticed during several centuries until particularly perceptive poets such as Mallarme or Rilke would have rediscovered it . The notion of a language entirely freed of referential constraints is properly inconceivable . Any utter­ ance can always be read as semantically motivated , and from the

moment understanding is involved the positing of a subject or an object is unavoidable . In RiIke's major works, the Duirw Elegies and ,

to a lesser extent, the Sonnets to Orpheus, the relapse from a rhetoric of figuration into a rhetoric of signification occurs in a way that the structural description of the New Poems made predictable .

Chiasmus , the ground-figure of the New Poems, can only come into being as the result of a void , of a lack that allows for the rotating motion of the polarities . As long as it is confined to objects , this structural necessity may seem harmless enough : the declining mo­ tion of a fountain or of a ball , the reflection of a mirror or the opening of a window casement have, in themselves, nothing of pathos about them. But RiIke's figuration must also involve sub­ ject/object polarities , precisely because it has to put in question the

of the longer New Poems

· . In stltut fOr � ih� Rom2ni:.- nl c Phi/ologla _80J.b.Q(L I r:v. :
In stltut
� ih�
Rom2ni:.- nl c
I r:v. : " 1
\- ,,-


polarity. This implies



the necessity of choosing as figures not only things but personal destinies or subject ive experiences as well , with the avowed purpose of converting them into impersonal over-things , but without being able (or wa nting) to prevent that the subjective moment first func­ tion on the level of meaning . However, these experiences, like the

figural objects, must contain a void or a lack if they are to be con­ verted into figures. It follows that only negative experiences can be poetically useful . Hence the prevalence of a thematics of negative

experiences that will proliferate in Rilke's poetry: the insatiability of desire, the powerlessness of love, death of the unfulfilled or the innocent , the frag ility of the earth , the alienation of consciousness­ all these themes fit Rilke's rhetoric so well , not because they are the expression of his own lived experience (whether they are or not is irrelevant) but because their structure allows for the unfolding of his

patterns of figuration . And just as th e kinetic totalization had to encompass rising and falling motions into one single trope , or just as the reflective totalization must include both sides of the mirror, so the totalization of subjective experience must lead to a positive asser­ tion that only chiasmus can reveal . The reversal of a negativity into a

promise , the ambivalent thematic strategy of the Duirw Elegies, al­ lows for a linguistic play that is analogous to that in the most discreet

play that is analogous to that in the most discreet tone , whose pathos , fervor,

tone ,

whose pathos , fervor, and exaltation make one forget the formal and fictional nature of the unity they celebrate. It is inevitable that the

Elegies are being read as messianic poems : all their thematic asser­ tions confirm this claim , and it is borne out by the virtuosity of the

figuration. 32 Yet the promise asserted by these texts is grounded in a play of language that can only come about because the poet has renounced any claim to extra- textual authority . In conformity wi th a paradox that is inherent in all literature , the poetry gains a

maximum of convincing power at the very moment that it abdicates any claim to truth . The Elegies and the Sonnets have been the main

of the New Poe ms.

They ca ll, however, fo r a very different

32. Jacob Steiner, the most exhaustive interpreter of the Elegies (Rilkes Duineser Elegum [Bern , 1962]), constantly warns against the tendency to read too literally many of the passages which allow for an interpretation of the Elegies as a type of secular salvation (see Steiner, pp. 160, 210, among others) . The fact remains , for Steiner, that the convergence between the poetic achievement and the existential depth is never in question. The final affirmation is seen in all its difficulty, to the point of making its formula tion impossible, but this only strengthens its affirmative power.



source of evidence in trying to prove the adequation of RiIke's rhetoric to the truth of his affirmations , yet his notion of figural language eliminates all truth-claims from his discourse . It would be a mistake to believe that a demystifYing reading of Rilke could reduce this contradiction to a passing aberration . The messianic reading of RiIke is an integral part ofa work that could not exist without it. The full complexity of this poetry can only appear in the juxtaposition of two readings in which the first forgets and the second acknowledges the linguistic structure that makes it come into being. The question remains whether RiIke himself considered his work under this double perspective or whether he followed the example of his commentators in systematically stressing the former at the expense of the latter.

Some of the particularly enigmatic poems from Rilke's last period cannot easily be reconciled with the positive tonality that is generally associated , even at this same late date, with the theme of the figure . This is the case of the following poem from the Sonnets to Orpheu.s, a text that has proven to be very resistant to interpretation :

Sieh den Himmel . Heisst kein Sternbild "Reiter"? Denn dies ist uns seltsam eingepragt :

dieser Stolz aus Erde. Und ein Zweiter, der ihn treibt und halt und den er tragt.

1st nicht so, gejagt

diese sehnige Natur des Seins?

Weg und Wendung.

Neue Weite . Und die zwei sind eins .

und dann gebandigt ,

Doch ein Druck verstandigt .

Aber sind sie's? Oder meinen beide nicht den Weg, den sie zusammen tun? Namenlos schon trennt sie Tisch und Weide .

Auch die sternische Verbindung trogt . Doch uns freue eine Weile nun

der Figur

zu glauben . Das geniigt .

[Sonnets, 1 :493]33

33. "Behold the sky. Is there no constellation called 'Horseman'? I For we have

been taught, singularly, to expect this : I this pride of earth, and his companion I

who drives and holds him, and whom he carries. II Is he not , thus spurred and then



Although it does not have the somewhat doctrinal tone of some texts wi th a similar theme , the poem is important fo r an understand­ ing of Rilke's poetics , since it deals wi th the recurrent and central figure of the constellation . The constellation signifies the most inclu­ sive form of totalization, the recuperation of a language that would be capable of naming the remaining presence of being beyond death

and beyond time . The recovered unity comes

into being in the play of polarities in

the two quatrains, in which we pass from a movement of constraint and opposition to the condition of acquiescence which we have fre­ quently encountered in our readings. The horseman and his steed are first shown in a relationship of duality in which their wills combat each other. The horse's pride rebels against the will of the rider, despite the fact that he is entirely at the mercy of the natural and

earthlike power that carries him. 34 The track [ Weg], the path freely


by the animal , and the turn [ Wende ], which designates the

will to

direct it in a direction of the rider's choice , are at first in

conflict wi th each oth er. This way of being in the world is character­ istic of man , a creature that exists in constant opposition to the spirit of the earth that inhabits plants, animals , and innocent beings. The

theme of this alienation, of a human destiny constantly opposed to the natural motion of things, runs through the entire work:

Dieses heisst Schicksal: gegeniiber sein und nicht als das und immer gegeniiber. [Eighth Elegy, 1 :471]35

reined in, I like the nervelike nature of Being? I Track and turn . But a pressure bri ngs them together. I New expanse-and the two are one. II But are they truly? Or is the track they I travel together not the meaning of their way? I Table and pasture part t hem more than names. II Star-pat terns may deceive I but it pleases us, fo r a while , I to believe in the figure. That is enough ."

34. The syntax of the passage is difficult and has made the task of the com­

mentators and of the

translators an uncertain one. In agreement with Jacob Steiner,

we read "Dieser Stolz aus Erde" as meaning "this pride made of earth," and as designating the horse. "Ein Zweiter" then refers to the ri der. The literal meaning is

"and a second one (the rider) who spurs and reins in ( the horse) that carries him ." The rest of the interpretation differs from that ofSteiner and of Morchen on several p oints .

35. "This is called destiny: to be opposite things I and not hing else and always

o pposite ."



Such a mode of existing is said to conform to the "nervelike"

Csehnig) , tough, and resistant nature of being, which lines 5 and 6

put into question :

1st nicht so, gejagt und dann gebandigt ,

diese sehnige Natur des Seins?

The answer to this question has to be negative , for Rilke never

conceives of his relationship to the world , nor especially of his rela­ tionship , as poet , to words, as a dialectical one. His entire strategy is

inst ead to let the poetic meaning be carried by the rhetorical and the phonic dimensions of language: the seductions of the syntax and of

the figuration have to make even the most extreme paradoxes appear natural. The "track" of the meaning and the "turn" ofthe tropes have

to be reconciled by and within the figure . The poem isolates and retains this moment in the paradox of a beneficent constraint : "doch

ein Druck verstandigt ." The phrase seizes the instant where the con­

trary wills are reconciled by a virtuosity that acquires the graceful ease of an apparent freedom. The contrary wills cross over and change place, following the same shift in point ofview that made the player acquiesce to the descending motion of the ball. The freedom at once opens up a new free space and reveals a new totality: "Neue

Weite. Und die zwei sind eins ." This new totality prefigures the passage from the earthlike couple to the figural constellation of "The Horseman ."

Once this point has been reached , most of RiIke's poems would

stop and celebrate the new relationship to the world which the figuration has revealed . This is what happens, for instance, in the

p oem fr om the Sonnets to Orpheus t ha t immediately fo llow s upon this one:

Heil dem Geist, der uns verbinden mag;

denn wir

leben wahrhaft in Figuren .

[1 :494]36

The second part of the Horseman sonnet , however, puts in ques­ tion all that has been achieved and reduce� the unified totality to a

36. "Hail to the spirit that may bring us together / for we live truly among figures."



mere illusion of the senses, as trivial and deceiving as the optical illusion which makes us perceive the chaotic dissemination of the

stars in space as if they were genuine figures, genuine designs

upon the background of the skies. "Auch die stemische Verbindung

triigt" : the imaginary lines that make up actual as well as fictional constellations (the figural constellations of Rilke's poems) are mere deceit, false surfaces . The final affirmation , "Das geniigt ," especially

when compared to the fervent promises that appear in other poems , seems almost derisive. Far from being, as is the case in the opening lines of the Ninth Elegy, a celebration of the moment, it sounds like a disenchanted concession. One can understand the disappointment of

beli ever in his poetic

annuncia tion : "What are we to think of this odd complacency, which

suddenly seems to satisfY itself, and 'for a moment,' with provisional and deceptive hopes? , '37 What is most important in this unexpected thematic turn is that it comes about at the precise instant when the text states its aware­ ness of its linguistic structure and designates the event it describes as

one of Rilke's fe rve nt commenta tors , a true


one of Rilke's fe rve nt commenta tors , a true traced an event of language.
one of Rilke's fe rve nt commenta tors , a true traced an event of language.

an event of language. Not only is the horseman referred to by the metalinguistic term "figure ," but the unity is stated in terms that are borrowed from the semantic function of language : "Oder meinen beide I nicht den Weg, den sie zusammen tun ?" The lines are

difficult to interpret, but the emphasis on signification and on mean­ ing is undeniable .

The failure of figuration thus appears as the undoing of the

unity it claimed to establish between the semantic function and the fo rmal structure of language . Agai n, one of the New Poems may be the most economical way to make the figure of the "road," which horseman and steed are said to travel together, more comprehensi­

ble . The poem entitled "Der Ball" describes the road , the trajectory of the ball ; one could say that it signifies this trajectory, that the trajec­ tory is the meaning of the poem as its referent . Moreover, the formal,

up the text

exactly mimics the meaning: the sentence climbs and falls , slows down , hesitates, and speeds up again in a manner that parallels at all points the signified motion . The manner of enunciation corre­ sponds exactly with what is being said. In other poems , the same convergence wil l be achieved by way of phonic ra ther than syn tac ti-

syntactical structure of the single sen tence that makes

way of phonic ra ther than syn tac ti- syntactical structure of the single sen tence



cal elements. The logical meaning and the leris indeed travel along the same road . But can it be asserted that this parallelism signifies, in the full

meaning of the term , the unity that it constitutes? Is it not ra ther a play of language , an illusion as arbitrary as the shape of the constel­ lations which share a common plane only as the result of an optical appearance? The Horseman sonnet confirms that Rilke knew this to be the case : the figure's truth turns out to be a lie at the very moment

when it asserts itself in the plenitude of its promise. The sonnet is not the only instance of such a retreat. In a late text entitled "Gong" (2: 186) Rilke attempts the ultimate reversal , not just the visual rever­

but the reversal

sal that takes place in "Archaischer Torso Apollos ,"

within the phonic dimension , within the ear, itself: "Klang, / der,

"311 Ye t, in this

ein tieferes Ohr , / uns , scheinbar Horende , hart


poem, the accumulation of the most extreme paradoxes and of ulti­ mate reversals does not lead to the expected totality, but ends instead in the ignominy of a fall which has nothing in common with the

happy descent of the ba ll. It suggests in stead the denunciation of the ultimate figure , the phonocentric Ear-god on which Rilke, from the start , has wagered the outcome of his entire poetic success , as error and betrayal :

Wanderers Sturz , in den Weg,

unser, an Alles, Verrat

: Gong!39

Among Rilke's French poems which , by their use of a foreign language , correspond to the renunciation of the euphonic seductions of language , one finds the same definition of the figure as the conver­ sion of representational and visual into purely auditive rhetoric:

II faut fermer les yeux et renoncer it la bouche, rester muet , aveugle , ebloui :

L'espace tout ebranle, qui nous touche ne veut de notre etre que 1'0uie.40

38. "Sound, / which, as a deeper ear, / hears us, who appear to be hear·




" Fall of the wanderer, on the roadside / Our, of evel)'thing, betrayal



40. "We must close our eyes and renounce our mouths, / remain mute, blind ,

dazzled : / Vib ratin g space , as it reaches us / demands from our being only the ea r."



At the mo ment of its fulfillment , this figure announces itself by its real name:

Masque? Non. Tu es plus plein, mensonge, tu as des yeux sonoresY

More still than the thematic statement, which can always be interpreted as a recuperation of the posited theme beyond its most absolute negation , the shift to French indicates not only the knowl­ edge but the advent of the disruption. The promise contained in

Rilke's poetry, which the commentators, in the eagerness of their belief, have described in all its severe complexity, is thus placed , by Rilke himself, within the dissolving perspective of the lie . RiIke can only be understood if one realizes the urgency of this promise to­ gether wi th the equally urgent , and equally poetic , need ofretracting it at the very instant he seems to be on the point of offering it to us .

41 .

"Mask? No. You are fu ller / you lie, you have sonorous eyes ."


3 Reading











A la recherche du temps perdu, thejuxtaposition ofdifferent temporal layers rather than the unmediated experience of an identity, given or recovered by an act of consciousness (involuntary memory, proleptic

projection , etc .) .t The specificity of Proust's novel would instead be grounded in the play between a prospective and a retrospective movement . This alternating motion resembles that of reading, or rather that of the re-reading which the intricacy of every sentence as well as of the narrative network as a whole constantly forces upon